Presented against the backdrop of a setting sun, Magritte's Le trait d'union, painted in 1942, consists of a strange chain of half-linked objects. These half-links progress with an alien yet undeniable logic across the spread of the painting - the sky links to the birds, despite their vegetation status, while these bird-plants are linked to the tree in the picture, the picture to the book. The links between these various elements are almost subliminal. It is only through certain qualities and associations that the viewer realises that this scene contains any logic at all, and yet somehow the layout of the painting, its progression, means that the viewer's eye is dragged across the canvas by the relentless momentum of these half-hidden connections.
Although Le trait d'union is closely linked to another painting, L'équateur of the same year, here Magritte has finely tuned the internal logic where he had not in its predecessor. This is even reflected in the title: Le trait d'union means 'hyphen' in French, explicitly referring to the strange process that takes place, to the machinery of this painting's internal thought. Indeed, while the phrase means 'hyphen', its association with this painting explodes the constituent parts of the phrase as much as the picture does the elements contained within it. Magritte has manipulated the potential ambiguity of the phrase, presenting us with a painting that seems to explore the 'Trait of Union', or the nature of association. As he said, 'A title 'justifies' the image by completing it. Nietzsche also said 'there is no thought without language.' Could the painting that affects us be a language without thought? Because it is evident that pictures representing ideas - justice for example - fail to affect us' (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 203). Magritte's art does not represent an idea. However, it explores a boundless number of half-imagined ideas, ideas that melt into nothing the moment they are grasped or made remotely logical. Hence, he focuses on associations, and on creating out of these associations a visual 'language without thought'. Magritte's art always sought, through juxtaposition, to bring attention to the poetic affinities that fill our world, to emphasise the strange nature of our lazy understanding of all that is around us. We take the visual world for granted, trust our senses too much and thus blind ourselves to the infinite possibilities and infinite qualities that surround us. By tampering with those qualities that we take for granted in, say, birds or plants, Magritte incites in us a Damascene epiphany. The scales fall from our minds, as opposed to our eyes, and we can look with a fresh and curious perspective at the complete yet wondrous illogic of the universe we inhabit.
Despite this sense that there is little logic in the world, Magritte is a maestro of the orchestration of his own juxtapositions. In Le trait d'union, he even adds to his exploration of the links between the elements by scattering what appears almost to be corroborating evidence throughout it. Thus we find impossible eggs scattered with the leaves below the plant-birds, and in a strange extension of this section of the work, a book lies as though placed with the same apparent disregard for order. The order is almost stronger in this front tier of the internal logic, balanced almost by the eggs on the other side. Somehow, these secondary elements seem to affirm the solidity of the painting's central logic.
In a highly capricious touch, Magritte's use of a picture within the picture means that the object we are viewing itself becomes part of the chain. Coincidentally, Le trait d'union was painted the same year as Max Ernst's Surrealism and Painting, perhaps the most famous Surrealist painting about painting. In Le trait d'union, Magritte has used the picture as a means of showing the arbitrary nature of representation. Perhaps he considered himself a victim of the limits of representation, or perhaps this barely-drawn tree is designed to illustrate the limitations of figurative art, of painting what one sees, as opposed to the visions of Magritte. For Magritte's visions are of a world of connections, of possibilities and of arcane poetic links and affinities hidden throughout the world of our perceptions. Here, he has feigned a show of submission to the pictorial world by signing not Le trait d'union, but this rudimentary picture within it. By doing so, he is openly associating himself with the inadequacies of figuration. In signing the skeletal image of the tree, he demonstrates that no literal rendering can capture any of the 'true' qualities of nature, or existence. Instead, we are shown the more palpable, or even more credible, world of his juxtapositions, a world infinitely more vivid than that of the scrawlish tree. Signing the picture within a picture is an open invitation to the viewer through which Magritte emphasises to us precisely how subjective his vision is, how limited. The tree is almost nonsensical. By inviting us to think of that picture as his vision of the world, he also challenges us to imagine the world for ourselves, to strip away our preconceptions and to see the universe with the awe, splendour and lack of understanding that it commands.