‘The image is separate from what it shows. What we can see that delights us in a painted image becomes uninteresting if what we are shown through the image is encountered in reality; and the contrary, too: what pleases us in reality, we are indifferent to in the image of this pleasing reality if we don’t confuse real and surreal, and surreal with subreal’
‘Visible things always hide other visible things’
Three incongruous and impossible objects are positioned amidst a sun-soaked beach in René Magritte’s Composition on a Sea Shore. A curtain-like sheet of corrugated metal interspersed with spherical bells leans against a picture-within-a-picture, one of the artist’s signature motifs, which shows a dramatic, stormy sunset seascape that contrasts with the vista behind. Completing this trio is an amorphous, flesh-coloured column or pillar. While this object is similar to the bilboquets that populate many of Magritte’s paintings, its distinctive forms seem to have been eroded and softened, with the upper half forming what could be regarded as the silhouette of a woman. As such, this object is completely unique within the artist’s oeuvre. Aside from this enigmatic piece, all of the other objects, and indeed the setting in which they are placed, reoccur in various iterations time and time again in Magritte’s brilliant and bizarre artistic universe; their strange juxtaposition serving to playfully disrupt our notion of reality and expand the boundaries of perception.
Magritte painted Composition on a Sea Shore in 1935-1936, a period of intense activity both in the studio and out of it. During this period, the artist was gaining international recognition and his pictures were being exhibited to an increasingly broad audience. Meanwhile, he was hugely involved with the Surrealist movements both in his native Belgium and in France, following the revival of his friendship with André Breton. It was during this time that Magritte had made a significant development in his art, creating a new means of juxtaposing objects which presented his Surreal 'solutions' to the problems posed by the objects in the real world around us. This philosophical method was born out of a revelatory experience that the artist had encountered in 1932: upon waking from a dream, he looked over at a birdcage that was in his room. In his semi-conscious state however, he saw not the bird that inhabited the cage, but instead an egg, a ‘splendid misapprehension’, that allowed him to grasp, in his own words, ‘a new and astonishing poetic secret’. The pursuit of secret, hitherto unknown or unacknowledged ‘elective affinities’ between related objects became the abiding purpose of Magritte’s art from this point onwards. He wanted to reveal the hidden poetry between objects so to make them ‘shriek aloud’ (Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, lecture given in Antwerp on 20 November 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., exh. cat., Magritte Centenary Exhibition, Brussels, 1998, p. 46), creating a beguiling, shocking or disturbing effect that would jolt the viewer out of complacency. Here, Magritte has conjured this bizarre poetry by placing imagined objects within a real setting. There is an alien logic at work, a hieratic sense of ritual and purpose in this strange arrangement of objects on a beach. The sense of discreet wonderment that the viewer feels is heightened by the horizon, by the view itself, which vaguely recalls the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, albeit in much calmer guise.
'I try – insofar as possible – to paint pictures that evoke mystery with the precision and charm necessary to the realm of thought,' Magritte once explained. 'It's obvious that this precise and charming evocation of mystery is composed of images of familiar objects, brought together or transformed in such a way that they no longer satisfy our naïve or sophisticated notions. In coming to know these images, we discover the precision and charm that are lacking in the “real” world in which they appear' (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 221). In Composition on a Sea Shore, Magritte has assembled these disparate objects in order to prise the viewer out of an all-too-complacent understanding of the universe and to glimpse the strangeness that surrounds us. In this sense, Composition on a Sea Shore itself acts, as does the maelstrom-filled painting within it, as a window into a reality to which we have gradually blinded ourselves.
A work that is closely related to Composition on a Sea Shore is the Tate’s L’annonciation of 1930 (Sylvester, no. 330). In this large painting, the same corrugated sheet of iron stands majestically upon a rocky outcrop, flanked by two bilboquets and what appears to be a piece of cut out paper. As in the present work, this composition of composite parts is filled with juxtapositions of texture, volume and form. Together, these paintings present Magritte’s own, defiantly unique form of landscape painting, capturing the mystery that he believed was inherent to the world around us.
The predominant subject of Composition on a Sea Shore is the playful, seemingly impossible ‘picture-within-picture’ motif. Incorporating an image of a painting into the picture itself, as he did repeatedly from the late 1920s onward, was one of the most effective and infinitely renewable pictorial devices that Magritte developed to challenge the very nature of representation and the relationship between the painted image and reality, questioning the viewer’s assumptions about the way we see the world. Magritte had first explored this theme in the late 1920s, having been inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s interior scenes, such as Great Metaphysical Interior (1917, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which a range of disparate objects and framed paintings are depicted within strange interior spaces. This concept fascinated the artist and remained one of the most insistent themes of his painting, manifesting itself in the image of canvases propped on easels in the landscape such as La belle captive (1933, LOT X.).
By incorporating an image of a painting into the picture itself, Magritte heightens the ambiguity between the real image, the painted representation of it and the viewer’s interpretation of it. With these works, Magritte disrupted the notion of painting ‘as a window on the world’, highlighting the very artifice of painting. Indeed, Magritte viewed the landscape as a compilation of flattened layers: ‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature’, he wrote, ‘I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me…I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 14-15). In Composition on a Sea Shore, Magritte has painted the scene as a collage-like arrangement of flattened painted surfaces, creating a new and endlessly compelling artistic vision.