‘The forbidden but not inaccessible skies, all the elements of the picture presented to our gaze rediscover their essential existence in the idea which positions them like counters in a vital game. The cloud which caresses a glass more than the glass holds it back, that the nearness of the mountains liberates more than it confines, leads, with the tender delicacy of a loving hand, to an ultimate obviousness.’
(Louis Scutenaire, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, London, 1993, p. 331)
‘I feel a drive to paint a cloud, perhaps a hundred. And I surround them with forms the meaning of which escapes me until I am once more visited by inspiration and I know that what is suitable under the cloud is a crystal glass.’
(Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, London, 1993, p. 331)
‘I think as though no one had ever thought before me.’
(Magritte, quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, London, 1985, p. 10)
‘We hope that those who look at the paintings of Magritte are above all attentive to what they are thinking of while they are looking; we also hope that such thoughts be necessary thoughts for them.’
(Louis Scutenaire, in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte, Selected Writings, trans. J. Levy, Surrey, 2016, p. 253)
A completely unique motif within René Magritte’s prolific oeuvre, La corde sensible of 1960 presents a union of everyday objects and metamorphosing elements in an image that is spellbinding in its seeming simplicity. Among the largest oil paintings that Magritte created, this painting is one of the most poetic iterations of the artist’s lifelong quest to reveal and revel in the mystery that exists within every part of the real world; an invitation for the viewer to enter into a brilliant theatre of the bizarre, a previously undiscovered, hitherto unknown reality. Under a perfect clear blue sky, amidst a verdant green, picture perfect landscape with a mountain range rising majestically in the distance, an extraordinary apparition has taken place. An enormous crystal glass stands incongruously in the middle of the valley, rising from the ground like a strange and impossible monument where it towers above the mountains behind. Hovering just above it is a cloud, its vaporous mass gently covering though barely touching the glass bowl itself, appearing as if the liquid content of the glass had morphed into a cloud of vapour. Magritte originally presented La corde sensible as a gift to his wife, Georgette. A few years later however he was successfully persuaded by the couple’s friend, the dealer Renée Lachowsky to sell it to her. Later owned by Ronald Winston, son of the world-renowned jeweller, Harry Winston, La corde sensible has remained in the same private collection since circa 1990. Throughout his career, Magritte had accumulated a personal inventory of everyday objects that he deployed in a variety of different combinations or arrangements to create strange and mysterious visions that were based entirely on reality. Yet, at the time that he painted La corde sensible, he had decided only to paint new compositions that explored novel ideas and themes. As he wrote to his dealer Alexander Iolas in 1959, ‘I ought to start painting fewer pictures soon. The fact is, the paintings to come will take me longer. I have reached a point where painting poses fresh problems for me and I cannot devote myself to easy things…I think there are enough paintings in the world…The new paintings will not be worth looking at unless they bring us ideas that are indispensable’ (Magritte to Alexander Iolas, 1959, quoted in J. Meuris, Magritte, trans. J.A. Underwood, New York, 1990, p. 170).
As a result of this desire to break new ground in his art, it was around this time that Magritte painted some of his most important and iconic works. Painted in the summer of 1960, La corde sensible is one such ‘indispensable’ image. Here, Magritte has used strikingly few elements – the glass and the cloud set within a picturesque landscape – to create a work of startling poetry and mystery. Though the motif of the glass had appeared in various guises throughout his art – filled with water and balanced atop an open umbrella in the strange dichotomy presented in Les vacances de Hegel, the protagonist on the stage-like composition of Les valeurs personelles, or freed from gravity’s clutches and floating amidst a night sky next to a loaf of bread in La force des choses – never had it been presented as in the present work, in monumental form, holding a cloud. Likewise, perfect white clouds floating amidst a perfect blue sky have become one of the artist’s most signature motifs, used in a variety of ways throughout his art, a banal yet enigmatic, intangible part of the everyday world. In the present work, this element takes centre stage. The monumental, curving form of the shallow bowled crystal coupe – a form supposedly inspired by the notorious French queen, Marie Antoinette’s breast – has a distinct elegance, its reflections captured in magnificently minute detail. As the cloud gently touches down upon it, an image of perfect equilibrium and harmony is achieved: the weightless cloud meets the solid glass creating a compelling contrast between lightness and weight, soft and hard, transparency and opacity, atmosphere and earth. Magritte never again returned to the motif of the cloud and the glass, realising in one perfect image this magical and mysterious union of objects.
Thought to have been completed in the summer of 1960, the origins of La corde sensible are well documented. At the end of July, Magritte wrote a letter to his friend, the poet André Bosmans, whom he had met just a few years earlier, in 1958, detailing over four pages the development of his solution to, in his own words, ‘the problem of the cloud’. The sketches that Magritte included illuminate his thought process, as he explained, ‘I enclose an “account” of the research done so far on “the problem of the cloud”. You will notice that the solution is implicit in the very first drawing. In a drawing on page two as well. By page four, it can be seen that it is a glass which is standing in the landscape, below the cloud. For the sake of clarity, the glass will be in this position in the picture: and two figures in the foreground will indicate the scale of what is going on’ (Letter from Magritte to A. Bosmans, 26th July 1960, in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, London, 1993, p. 330). Focusing upon the motif of the cloud, these sketches show various combinations of objects: a cloud floating above a blazing fire; hovering in the air alongside a bird and ovoid-shaped egg or rock; atop an open umbrella; within a wide glass, and, as can be seen in the present work, floating just above the glass. It was this final iteration that was, as Magritte explained to Bosmans, the ‘solution’ to the pictorial ‘problem of the cloud’ that he had set out to discover.
Since the 1930s, Magritte had sought to find ‘solutions’ to particular ‘problems’ posed by different types of objects, a method that enabled him to challenge and reconfigure the most ubiquitous and commonplace elements of everyday life. These problems obsessed him until he was able to conceive of an image to solve them. 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. Later in the semi-conscious state of slumber, 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, because the shock I experienced was caused precisely by the affinity between the two objects [due to their relationship via the bird]: the cage and the egg, whereas previously I had provoked shock by bringing together totally unrelated objects. Proceeding from this revelation, I tried to discover if objects other than the cage, thanks to the pinpointing of some element peculiar to them, and a strictly predestined part of them, could not display the same obvious poetic quality that the egg and the cage had achieved through being brought together’ (Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, lecture given in Antwerp on 20th November 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., exh. cat., Magritte Centenary Exhibition, Brussels, 1998, p. 47). 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, ibid., 46), creating a beguiling, shocking or disturbing effect that would jolt the viewer out of complacency. Following this philosophical method, the ‘problem of the bird’ was therefore solved by depicting an egg in a cage; the ‘problem of the door’ resolved by painting a shapeless hole cut through it; the tree, with a ‘leaf-tree’, and so on.
While Magritte had solved the ‘problem of the rain’ in a series of three paintings of 1937 (Le chant de l’orage, L’union libre, La selection naturelle), the solution to the ‘problem of the cloud’ had eluded him until the time that he painted La corde sensible. The problem of rain had been solved through depicting a rain filled landscape in which the storm clouds appear on the ground instead of in the sky; as Magritte described in a letter to André Breton: ‘Rain is pouring down and large clouds (bigger than the houses or the trees) are crawling over the ground’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, exh. cat., Magritte, London, New York, Houston & Chicago, 1992-1993, n.p.). Defying our notions of normality, this image evokes consternation in the viewer upon seeing the most familiar objects and natural phenomena turned upon their head. As David Sylvester has described, ‘[Magritte’s] aim… was to discover the property which belonged indissolubly to an object but which seemed strange and monstrous when the connection was revealed; what preoccupied him was the shock induced when this knowledge was given concrete expression’ (D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, p. 271).
In La corde sensible, Magritte has solved the ‘problem of the cloud’ by placing an empty glass – a vessel usually used for carrying liquid – under the cloud itself. Water is the ‘elective affinity’ that unites these seemingly disparate objects, its absence here allowing Magritte to render them in a strangely impossible encounter. Has the liquid in the glass evaporated and condensed to become the vaporous mass of the cloud? Or is the cloud about to precipitate and fill the glass? Far from being a random juxtaposition of objects, the image had been carefully thought out. A year after he painted La corde sensible, Magritte was asked to explain how this unexpected combination of objects came to him. ‘I cannot start painting until I have the picture completely worked out in my head’, he explained. ‘It develops slowly. I work with a drawing-book. Inspiration gives me an image: I feel a drive to paint a cloud, perhaps a hundred. And I surround them with forms the meaning of which escapes me until I am once more visited by inspiration and I know that what is suitable under the cloud is a crystal glass’ (Magritte, quoted in Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, p. 331).
A strange metamorphosis has also occurred in the objects of La corde sensible. While Magritte combined and juxtaposed objects to transfer them from the realm of the ordinary into that of the extraordinary, he also showed objects in states of transformation. Apples are petrified into stone; a female nude is mysteriously metamorphosing in front of the viewer’s eyes from a living breathing human into a strange statue of air; a pair of boots turns into a pair of feet; a rock has seemingly left the earth and ascended, weightless, upwards into the sky. Likewise, objects are often depicted in an exaggeratedly large state, their properties magnified, such as the glass in the present work. As Magritte explained in ‘La ligne de vie’: ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change of substance in the case of certain objects…the use of certain visions glimpsed between sleeping and waking, 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 real world’ (Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, op. cit., p. 46). A sense of unseen metamorphosis governs every aspect of this wondrously nonsensical composition. Could it be that the cloud is no longer weightless, but is in fact heavy, having dropped down from the outer reaches of the atmosphere, held up by the enormous glass. Similarly, from where has this monumental vessel sprung? Its absurdly magnified size defies the conventions of reality. The possibilities are endless and unfathomable. Defying logical interpretation and embracing contradiction, La corde sensible as with so much of Magritte’s work calls for the viewer to do nothing more than revel in the poetic pictorial mystery that he has conjured.
Magritte had, as he explained in his letter to André Bosmans, intended to include two figures in La corde sensible, so to ‘indicate the scale of what is going on’. In the final composition, however, these two figures are conspicuously absent. Indeed, other than the landscape itself, there is nothing within the image that gives a real sense of perspectival scale. Though it appears as if we are looking at an extraordinarily large glass, it could be just as possible that we are regarding an image of a normally sized glass that sits within a miniature depiction of a landscape or a glass that only appears to rest far away on the landscape but is in fact placed at the right level in front of our eyes. Likewise the scale and position of the cloud are baffling: although its size could conceivably fit in relation to the scale of the landscape, it appears too close to the picture plane, advancing towards the viewer in a way that disorientates the sense of perspective and distance in the composition. In this way, Magritte is playing with the way we see, disrupting a fictional sense of space and turning pictorial perspective and scale upon its head.
The landscape appears so perfectly and with such exquisite detail that, rather than plausibly conveying a sense of mimesis, it in fact emphasises its inherent artifice. In this way, Magritte brought into question the very nature of representation and the relationship between the painted image and reality. The unblemished blue sky and fairy-tale landscape appear nothing more than fat screens that could be drawn back to reveal something else behind. This was an often-used pictorial device in Magritte’s work. ‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature’, he once explained, ‘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 Whitfield, op. cit., p. 14-15). In La corde sensible the artist heightens the ambiguity between the real image, the painted representation of it and the viewer’s interpretation of it, shattering the notion of a painting ‘as a window on the world’ and pointing instead to its inherent artifice. As he once cryptically explained, ‘I used light blue where sky had to be represented but never represented the sky’ (Magritte, quoted in C. Grunenberg, ed., Magritte A to Z, London, 2011, p. 36).
In this way, La corde sensible, as with so much of Magritte’s work, defies interpretation, eluding the search for symbolism, meaning or logical explanations. Once, upon being asked what meaning lay behind a composition, Magritte wryly replied, ‘There is nothing “behind” this image. (Behind the paint of the painting there is the canvas. Behind the canvas there is a wall, behind the wall there is…etc. Visible things always hide other visible things. But a visible image hides nothing)’ (Magritte, quoted in Sylvester, op. cit, 1992, p. 408). Shortly after Magritte had completed this painting, he showed it to his great friend, the poet Achille Chavée, who seems to have had criticisms of the image. In a letter of 20th August 1960, Magritte responded to Chavée’s opinions, writing, ‘It should be noted that it would be impossible to destroy the image that this canvas presents. Most of the time people try to destroy the images I paint through claiming to “interpret” them. For instance, if I paint a cloud, it is “interpreted” as being a horse, an atomic explosion or something else. Or it is taken to be the “expression” of a feeling, thus signifying that the image is of no interest in itself and needs the help of an “interpretation” of an indigence such as to delight the “interpreter”’ (Magritte, quoted in Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, p. 331). Throughout his life, Magritte shunned the multitude of psychological and biographical interpretations that sought to decode the meaning of his work, maintaining time and time again that it was the image alone that counted; ‘I have nothing to express!’ he once exclaimed, ‘I simply search for images, and invent and invent. The idea doesn’t matter to me: only the image counts, the inexplicable and mysterious image, since all is mystery in our life’ (Magritte, quoted in M. Blots, ‘Silhouette: René Magritte’, La Métropole, Brussels 2nd July 1951, in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte, Selected Writings, trans. J. Levy, Surrey, 2016, p. 138). For the artist, the only thing that his canvases purported to show was the mystery that existed in the visible world. He painted his thoughts, not his dreams, seeking not to transport the viewer to a mythical far-away land, nor to a fantastical, astral realm, but instead to reveal the mystery that is inherent in reality. La corde sensible shows the wonder that could exist in the world; it is an image that is marvellously impossible yet strangely conceivable, reminding the viewer that there is mystery there for those who seek to find it. ‘Mystery is not one of the possibilities of reality’, Magritte stated in 1961. ‘Mystery is what is absolutely necessary for reality to exist’ (Magritte, Rhétorique, no. 1, May 1961, in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, ibid., p. 195).