During a visit to René and Arlette Magritte in 1956, the American collectors Barnet and Eleanor Cramer Hodes aquired several gouaches executed in small formats. Over the next nine years Mr. and Mrs. Hodes went on to acquire many more, about sixty in all, which they commissioned from the artist. The collection comprised a virtual museum of the artist's most important images, many reprised from, or painted as variants on earlier works. The present gouache is one of a group of six, with papiers collés cut from sheet music, that Magritte sent to Mr. and Mrs. Hodes on 6 December 1961 (see Sylvester, nos. 1644-48 for the others).
This series recalls but does repeat images from Magritte's initial foray into the medium of papiers collé that he undertook in 1925-1927, at which time he completed about thirty examples (see Christie's, New York, 7 May 2003, lot 22). All but three of these used fragments of sheet music taken from the piano score of a popular English musical comedy, The Girls of Gottenberg, by George Grossmith, Jr. and L. E. Berman. Magritte's brother Paul, who played the piano in local cafes and taverns, may have given the music to the artist. The relationship of the musical fragments to the artist's themes in these early works remains unclear, and in the case of the present work, done more than three decades later, the music has not been identified, and it may or may not hold some clue to the artist's intentions. A fragment from the piano score seen in present work also appears to have been also used in its companion-piece La liberté des cultes (Sylvester, no. 1644), while music from an unidentified piano and vocal score was clipped for the remaining four gouaches/papier collés done in 1961.
The title of the present work, translated as 'The literal meaning', was also employed in a related gouache done in 1963 (Sylvester, no. 1531). Both gouaches have as their early antecedent the oil painting Le palais de rideaux, 'The palace of curtains', which Magritte executed in 1929 (Sylvester, no. 305; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). It was one of a series of paintings on the theme Le sens propre in which the artist placed a word in an irregular frame set on a wooden floor. Magritte opted to depict a sky background in the present work, in the place of the wood interiors seen in the 1929 oil paintings.
Both framed boards seen here are similar in shape, implying some manner of equivalence or juxtaposition between them. On the left-hand side the word Forêt ('forest') has been inscribed on a blackboard; it is a word signifying a familiar aspect of the natural world, but as a word it is merely a representation. Magritte appears to connect and contrast the element of abstraction inherent in language, and the even greater degree of disembodied expression inherent in music, in which notation can represent melody and rhythm, and may in performance engender strong emotions in its listeners, but is otherwise unable to represent anything concrete or material. This gouache seems to trace the process of human abstraction, from the natural world to thought and emotion as expressed in language or music, a process which may as easily be run in reverse. Each object or sign is literally what it is, but it also signifies something else in or beyond its own particular conceptual dimension. Each concept is set apart from its surroundings within its own frame, as it might exist in the framework of human thought.
Magritte has explored these notions in the present work with his characteristic sense of visual and verbal play. At the same time he has made it known that these issues, the limitations of human thought, are indeed serious and critical to our understanding of our place in reality. The artist has precariously balanced his pair of framed 'signifiers' at the edge of the wooden floor, which is probably intended to represent our own familiar domestic environment. Beyond them is the sky, that is, limitless, unfathomable and uninhabitable space, the reality that surrounds us. Suzi Gablik has pointed out that 'What appears inevitably true in one sense, because it has been endorsed by reason, is an oversimplified and limited notion of the possibilities of experience, since it does not take into account the ambivalent, paradoxical nature of reality. In Magritte paintings, everything is directed toward a specific crisis in consciousness, through which the limited evidence of the common-sense world can be transcended' (in Magritte, London 1985, p. 124).