Imbued with a delicate lyricism and musicality, René Magritte’s Moments musicaux is marked by a simple balance that belies the deep resonances which lie in both the content and the medium of the work. Created in 1962, this delicately constructed papier collé combines several key themes and concerns which had occupied the artist throughout his career – concepts of transformation and dislocation, theatricality and mystery, through which he sought to challenge our passive understanding of reality. Magritte’s first papiers collés had emerged towards the end of 1925, around the same time as he was beginning to explore surrealist imagery in his paintings, and were largely inspired by the ground-breaking works of Max Ernst. For Magritte, Ernst’s bold experiments in collage represented a radical shift in the act of art making, breaking through the traditional parameters by which an artist was judged: ‘scissors, paste, images and genius in effect superseded brushes, paints, models, styles, sensibility and that famous sincerity demanded of artists’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 260).
Liberating the artist in this way, papiers collés became an integral aspect of Magritte’s oeuvre, and over the course of the following two years he produced approximately thirty works in the medium. While he incorporated small drawings and snippets of photographs and advertising material in some collages, the most consistent feature of these works were the fragments of sheet music Magritte included in all but three of the papiers collés from this period. Cut from the piano score of a popular Edwardian musical comedy, The Girls of Gottenburg by George Grossmith Jr. and L. E. Berman, the artist played with the legibility of these sheets, often inverting the fragments or rotating them to an awkward angle, so that the notes become abstract, monochrome patterns. Adding accents of colour and subtle shadows with pencil or charcoal to the sheets, Magritte granted these flat sections of paper a new sense of three-dimensionality and character, giving them a new presence within the composition, whilst simultaneously denying the purpose they were created for.
Magritte’s experiments with the papier collé technique re-emerged in the closing months of 1959, following a commission to design the cover of a ballet programme for a ‘Gala de la Section Bruxelloise de l’Association Générale de la Presse Belge,’ which would count amongst its attendees the King of Belgium. The resulting work, Untitled (Sylvester 1629), represented a return to the format after thirty years and featured a single, towering bilboquet silhouetted against a theatrical curtain, behind which a deserted landscape stretched all the way to the horizon line. Sparking the artist’s creative imagination once again, the medium became an important creative outlet for Magritte over the course of the following decade, alongside his paintings in oil and gouache, and playful three-dimensional objects. Once again, the most striking feature of these works lay in the whimsical use of music sheets cut into the shape of some of the most recognisable motifs of the artist’s oeuvre, from perfectly spherical apples, to floating pipes, bowler-hatted men and open doorways leading to mysterious realms. Whereas the collages from the 1920s had all used clippings from the same score, the later works incorporate disparate fragments from a variety of musical sources, from Carl Maria von Weber’s arias, to piano reductions of Beethoven’s symphonies, along with popular numbers from the music halls.
In his studies of Magritte’s papiers collés, Siegfried Gohr has suggested a parallel between the composer of music and the composer of collages, namely in the reception of their work: ‘In both cases, the actual work consists neither of the notes nor of the pieces of paper – but emerges only in a performance, which ultimately takes place in the mind of the listener or viewer’ (Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, p. 72). Viewed from this perspective, the artist’s choice of two of his most iconic motifs for the central elements of Moments musicaux – the silhouettes of a pipe and a bird in mid-flight – suggest such a connection with the viewer. Inextricably linked to the public image of the artist, these leitmotifs establish a chain of associations in the mind of the viewer, linking Moments musicaux not only to the compositions in which they had previously featured, but also to their place in the world around us.
No viewer would see the pipe, floating in mid-air, and fail to recall the artist’s infamous 1929 composition La trahison des images, which through its clever inclusion of the statement ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ below a painted image of the object in question revealed the impossibility of reconciling language, images and their subjects. Challenging the linguistic tradition of identifying an image as the object itself, the work was highly provocative. As the artist later explained: ‘The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe,” I’d have been lying!’ (Magritte, quoted in C. Vial, ‘Ceci n’est pas René Magritte,’ Femme d’Aujourd’hui, July 6, 1966, pp. 22-24). Recurring again and again in various scenarios and contexts throughout Magritte’s oeuvre, the simple image of the pipe became a symbol for the artist’s explorations into perception, a theme which underpin his creative output for decades.
Similarly, the image of a small dove in mid-flight, its wings stretching upwards as it propels itself through the air, had become synonymous with the name Magritte in the 1950s and 1960s, despite the fact he had explored it as a subject on only a handful of occasions. This is largely thanks to the fact that the motif was used for a number of years by Sabena, the Belgian national airline, as a company logo on the tail of their aircrafts. Traditionally, the silhouette of the bird was filled by a stretch of sky, but one which stood in opposition to that surrounding it, with the artist juxtaposing a twilight scene, filled with stars and moonlight, against a cloud-filled, azure sky. Appearing like a window into another dimension, the sky-bird made of air suggests not only the realm of infinite possibilities and mystery that lies beyond our immediate perception of the world, but also points to the wonders of flight, something so everyday and familiar that its beauty and spectacle is often overlooked. With the odd conflation of the dove and its surroundings, Magritte creates a visual cue that allows us to reassess and appreciate the simple act of a bird in flight, drawing our attention to the inherent magic of the universe around us.
Magritte adds a further level of impossibility to the composition by playfully switching the environments in which each object is usually found. For example, the bird is set against a wood-grained panel, the ripples and whorls of the natural grain appearing at first glance like clouds drifting across the sky at sunset. However, on closer examination, it becomes clear that the ‘sky’ is divided into clearly delineated boards, reminiscent of a floor, a table top or an interior wall, while below the pipe floats independently in mid-air before a vast mountain range. The careful delineation of the abstract, organic patterns of the wooden board may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the semi-automatic techniques of frottage and grattage developed by Ernst in the 1920s, which used a variety of materials, most notably wood, to create richly textured effects in paint and graphite in his works. However, in the dislocation of these objects, the sheer improbability of their presence in such an environment, Magritte achieves a further layer of associations and meaning to the composition. Indeed, like a nesting doll, the various elements in Moments musicaux appear deceptively simple, each containing within them a myriad of hidden associations, meanings and connections, which only those versed in Magritte’s unique vocabulary could fully understand.
Moments musicaux was purchased in May 1961 by the esteemed collector and friend of the artist, Harry Torczyner, whom Magritte referred to as his ‘magnificent and magisterial ambassador.’ However, it appears that the collage was not titled until almost a year later when, in a letter to Torczyner of 6 February 1962, the artist wrote, ‘I think the title Moments musicaux fits the collage with the pipe and the bird. This title could be applied to several works (like certain other titles such as L'art de la conversation, Stimulation objective, etc.)...’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés, 1918 – 1967, London, 1994, p. 310). Taken from a collection of piano pieces by Schubert, the title does not reference the contents of the music sheets directly, but rather suggests the poetic nature of the image itself. For Magritte, such titles were intentionally enigmatic, provoking a deeper engagement with the subject. As he later stated: ‘The titles of pictures are not explanations, and pictures are not illustrations of titles. The relationship between the title and picture is poetic – that is, it only catches some of the object’s characteristics of which we are usually unaware, but which we sometimes intuit, when extraordinary events take place which logic has not yet managed to elucidate’ (Magritte, quoted in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, transl. Jo Levy, London, 2016, p. 112).