‘This painting, indeed, ceases to defend itself. Aggressive, it assaults us. Better still, it invites oblivion, it seems to dissolve, to reveal itself, then to let itself go. It insinuates itself. Suddenly one notices that its unknown forms have taken over everywhere. It thus eludes judgement, eludes praise, like René Magritte’ -Paul Nougé
René Magritte painted L’oasis in 1926, at the very dawn of Surrealism. This picture shows a small copse in an expansive desert, the trees surrounded by a covey of clouds. Yet these trees are placed upon a table, making this ‘oasis’ a zone of intense mystery. L’oasis dates from the vital period in which Magritte had begun to hone the unique, hallmark aesthetic that would propel him to the forefront of Surrealism, and make his works some of the most recognised even today. It is an indication of the importance of L’oasis that it featured in a string of Magritte’s landmark lifetime exhibitions, beginning with the 1927 show at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels which presented his Surreal works to the world for the first time. It also featured in a number of post-war retrospectives; in several of these, existing correspondence reveals the extent to which Magritte himself helped suggest the selection of works being made, highlighting the importance of L’oasis. This picture was owned by the Galerie Le Centaure and the Galerie L’Epoque, and was also in the collection of Magritte’s friend and supporter, E.L.T. Mesens. It later belonged to Magritte’s friend, the lawyer and poet Jean Van Parys.
With its presentation of a clutch of trees and clouds sitting atop a table in the midst of a blasted landscape, L’oasis reveals the process that underscored Magritte’s early works, and which formed a foundation for many of his subsequent ones. This was essentially a form of visual collage, taking recognisable elements from the real world and presenting them in a manner that exerted a new, radical poetry. This is the case with the familiar objects in L’oasis, which would all remain critical to Magritte’s ever-expanding visual lexicon over the coming decades. The table itself is clinical, presented as an item of furniture more suited to a surgery than a bourgeois home; such tables would serve as vital arenas for the Surrealists, for instance in Alberto Giacometti’s Table Surréaliste of 1933.
In a sense, the tables tapped into the language of the guéridon which had been espoused by so many artists, especially the Cubists, in previous years. Yet here, the table is sprouting trees. Is this a comment on shared ancestry, with the wood of the table being revealed as the once-living entity above? Or is it a simple technique of displacement, the trees represented rootless upon a table? Meanwhile, the clouds hover improbably around the foliage, introducing a motif that would be explored in a number of ways throughout Magritte’s career. They appear in an interior in A la suite de l’eau, les nuages, another 1926 painting formerly in the collection of René Gaffé and now in the Kunsthaus Zurich; they also float impossibly alongside cubes of sky in Les Marches de l’été of 1938, now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Other clouds would be shown floating in mysterious new contexts over the decades.
With its collage-like combination of elements, L’oasis owed some of its appearance to the works of that arch-collagist, Max Ernst. Magritte had already been a great admirer of many of the figures associated with Dada, and was familiar with Ernst’s pictures, including the murals he had created in the house he had shared with Paul and Gala Éluard in Eaubonne. As Magritte recalled:
‘Max Ernst superbly demonstrated, through the shattering effect of collages made from old magazine illustrations, that one could easily dispense with everything that had given traditional painting its prestige. Scissors, paste, images, and some genius effectively replaced the brushes, colours, model, style, sensibility and the divine afflatus of artists’ (Magritte in 1938, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 214).
While Magritte created actual collages, he also applied a similar mental process to his paintings, as is the case in L’oasis. Here, the table, trees and clouds appear juxtaposed in a manner that is beyond the grasp of our everyday logic. They have been rearranged and reconfigured in a manner that brings out a new poetry. It is a mark of the success of Magritte’s aesthetic that Ernst himself would in later years discuss Magritte’s ‘collages painted entirely by hand’ (Max Ernst, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 140).
It is telling that L’oasis and some other works from the period have been compared in the catalogue raisonné of his works to Ernst’s own recent picture, Las Pampas, an early frottage from his series, Histoire naturelle. The frottage technique was one that Ernst had finessed in 1925, placing his picture surface against organic matter and pressing against it in order to create patterns that themselves suggested images, for instance the grain of wood visible in floorboards. The desert landscape in L’oasis itself recalls Ernst’s frottage landscapes, with the shadows of the small dune-like protrusions resembling the patterns in the surface of wooden boards. In Las Pampas, the upper portion of the sheet was punctuated by a solitary tree, as is the case here, and also in another picture from the period by Magritte, Les fleurs du voyage.
The juxtaposition of trees, clouds, desert and furniture in L’oasis doubtless also owed something to Giorgio de Chirico’s Le chant d’amour, a picture which had served as an epiphany for Magritte. L’oasis thus reveals both of the central influences on Magritte’s early Surreal paintings, and the way that he had digested them in order to create something that was entirely his own. L’oasis can be seen to have strands of the DNA of, say, Pittura Metafisica, Cubism, Dada and even André Derain. Yet it is its own creature. In a sense, this is emphasised by the play of space that Magritte has created within this landscape. Indeed, the table itself appears to show Magritte dispensing with the shackles of traditional Western painting. It is anti-perspectival, tapering as it approaches the viewer, instead of shrinking into the distance. It has been painted in a manner that deliberately contrasts with the background, the tubes recalling the structures that underpinned the paintings of Fernand Léger. Magritte has deliberately and provocatively abandoned the tenets of the picturesque that still held such sway in the 1920s, instead creating something jarring, something that demands the viewer’s attention.
The table both co-opts and disrupts the more traditional means employed in figurative painting. Contrasting with the deadpan painting style Magritte has employed, its perplexing dimensions provide a deliberate cognitive hurdle. Combined with the absurd sight of a bunch of trees sprouting from this table and then being surrounded by a flock of clouds, the picture succeeds in taking elements from the visual vocabulary of everyday life and presenting them in a way that provokes a new appreciation. As Magritte himself explained in a 1938 lecture, these images were, ‘the result of a systematic search for an overwhelming poetic effect through the arrangement of objects borrowed from reality, which would give the real world from which those objects had been borrowed an overwhelming poetic meaning by a natural process of exchange’ (Magritte, quoted in Torczyner, op. cit., 1977, pp. 215-216).
Magritte himself confessed that the initial reception of his early pictures was not widely enthusiastic. He would recall in the third-person autobiographical notes he wrote for his 1954 retrospective—which featured L’oasis—that he even felt, ‘obliged to write unpleasant things to certain journalists who exceed the bounds of stupidity’ (Magritte, Selected Writings, trans. J. Levy, Richmond, 2016, p. 153). Fortunately, Magritte had his supporters as well as his detractors. Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, the art dealer who had initially sponsored Magritte and who subsequently became a partner in the Galerie Le Centaure, wrote an extensive defence of his work earlier in 1927, in which L’oasis was illustrated. Meanwhile, Magritte’s friend Paul Nougé wrote of the works shown at the Galerie Le Centaure in terms which pre-empted the artist’s own later analysis:
‘This painting, indeed, ceases to defend itself. Aggressive, it assaults us. Better still, it invites oblivion, it seems to dissolve, to reveal itself, then to let itself go. It insinuates itself. Suddenly one notices that its unknown forms have taken over everywhere. It thus eludes judgement, eludes praise, like René Magritte’ (Nougé, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, London, 1992, p. 68).
The important position that L’oasis occupies in Magritte’s work, and within the wider context of Belgian Surrealism, was reinforced when it was included in another exhibition of his work at Charleroi in 1929. There, in the Salle de la Bourse, a total of only eighteen pictures were hung during a musical performance introduced by Nougé and conducted by André Souris (see ibid., p. 94). The recitals included music by composers including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg, as well as Souris. Crucially, this event demonstrates one of the key defining differences between Belgian Surrealism and its marginally-older sister movement in France. Where André Breton was notoriously averse to music, and kept it at a distance from Paris Surrealism, it was at the very heart of the movement in Belgium. Indeed, another key figure, Magritte’s old friend E.L.T. Mesens, who formerly owned L’oasis, was originally a piano teacher. Many of these figures retained a strong love of music, and felt that it was vital to their Surrealism. While the Belgian branch was the junior, albeit by only a short time, it nonetheless had its own distinct character, and characters.
Magritte had met Mesens when the latter was only a teenager, yet he was to play a central role, both in terms of his life and his legacy. Within a short time, Mesens had become an invaluable go-between, encountering a wide range of prominent writers and thinkers. He became an art dealer, running the Galerie L’Epoque; that gallery in turn was absorbed by the Galerie Le Centaure in 1929. Mesens subsequently acquired a group of paintings by Magritte, presumably including L’oasis, during the liquidation of the Centaure (see ibid., p. 179). By the time that the work was shown again in the 1954 retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, it was owned by Jean Van Parys, a lawyer and poet who was himself a friend of Magritte, as well as a collector of a number of his works.
During the late 1930s, Mesens had moved to London, running the London Gallery with Roland Penrose. He was thus at the forefront of the presentation of Surrealism to the English-speaking world. He nonetheless retained strong connections with Belgium and his friends there. Indeed, when Robert Giron first suggested the 1954 retrospective, Magritte suggested that Mesens should be involved; he ended up helping not only with the selection, but also editing the catalogue. L’oasis featured in a string of lifetime retrospectives of Magritte’s work from this point, including what would become his last: the show that opened on 4 August 1967, which had over 100 exhibits, pre-empted the artist’s death by only eleven days.