‘Given my intention to make the most everyday objects shriek aloud, they had to be arranged in a new order and take on a disturbing significance’ -René Magritte
Painted in 1962, René Magritte’s L’explication presents a bottle and a carrot, next to which stands a mysteriously metamorphosing, surreal hybrid of these two objects. United solely by their long, cylindrical form, these two incongruous objects present a strange juxtaposition, while the third object, a bottle that seems to be turning into a carrot in front of our eyes, presents an impossible spectacle that both confounds and compels. This surreal combination of objects had first appeared in Magritte’s work in 1951 in an oil painting of the same name, which his dealer, Alexandre Iolas, bought and promptly sold to the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (Sylvester, no. 764; now destroyed). The motif met with immediate popularity, and over the years that followed, Magritte frequently returned to this whimsical scene, painting variations in both gouache and oil, and altering, often very subtly, the setting of this unexpected union of objects, placing them in front of a mountainous landscape, within a surreal interior, or as in the present work, against a deep, endlessly purple background. The fact that he returned to this composition on so many occasions is testament to the importance that it held for the artist. The present gouache was initially owned by the legendary Italian writer, gallerist and collector, Arturo Schwarz. His eponymous Galleria Schwarz, located in Milan from 1945, became a centre for the exhibition and dissemination of Dada and Surrealist art in Italy, as well as contemporary Italian art.
With its strange union of quotidian and fantastical objects, L’explication encapsulates Magritte’s central line of artistic enquiry: to discover what he called the ‘elective affinities’ of objects and images. From the mid-1930s onwards, Magritte explored the ways in which linked objects – an egg and a birdcage for example – related to one another, as he sought to reveal the unseen mysteries of the visible world. This subtle means of inducing the shock of the ordinary by instead revealing an unexpected affinity between objects had come to the artist in 1932. ‘One night… I woke up in a room where there happened to be a bird sleeping’, he recounted. ‘A splendid misapprehension made me see the cage with the bird gone and replaced by an egg. I had grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, because the shock I experienced was caused precisely by the affinity between the two objects: the cage and the egg, whereas previously I had provoked the shock of bringing together totally unrelated objects’ (Magritte, ‘La Ligne de vie’ in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., René Magritte 1898-1967, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 16).
In order to achieve this, Magritte juxtaposed or, as in the present work, transformed, often ubiquitous and ordinary objects to create surreal combinations that defy logic and confound understanding. Magritte explained: ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change in substance in the case of certain objects...such in general were the means devised to force objects out of the ordinary, to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world’ (Magritte, ibid., p. 46). Following this basic notion of seeking the mystery in ordinary things, Magritte has concocted in L’explication, from a wine bottle and a carrot, a hybrid phenomenon in which each of the original objects, related only in the semblance of shape, appears in a state of metamorphosis from one into the other, merging aspects of both. The same finely rendered reflection is visible both on the glass bottle as well as on the metamorphosing carrot-bottle, suggesting that the crunchy organic carrot is melding with the hard glass of the bottle whose shape the vegetable echoes. The result suggests another thing altogether, unrelated to either component: perhaps, most dramatically and unforeseen, the glowing, heated nose cone of an artillery shell.
The title of this work – L’explication or The explanation, and the title that Magritte’s friend, Paul Nougé proposed – Un discours de la méthode or Discourse on method – suggests that the bottle-carrot motif was one of the defining examples of Magritte’s method of exposing the unexpected affinities between objects (D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, London, 1993, p. 185). Magritte placed great importance in the titles of his work, often entrusting the task of naming them to his closest friends, a group of poets and writers, including Nougé and Louis Scutenaire. Yet, although Magritte assigned great importance
to the titles of his paintings, he disliked the search for hidden or symbolic meanings that they could engender. ‘The titles of my pictures are only a conversational convenience, they are not explanations’, he stated, ‘[they] are meant as an extra protection to counter any attempt to reduce poetry to a pointless game’ (Magritte, ibid., p. 46). For Magritte, any attempt at explaining the playful contradictions, juxtapositions and disruptions that his compositions created was to miss the essence of his art. Perhaps then the title L’explication is not so much revealing his methods, but doing the very opposite: adding another layer of mystery to this playful, enigmatic and ultimately inexplicable and irrational composition.