Caught in the air, flying above a nest filled with eggs, a bird is shown against the backdrop of a pleasantly cloud-specked sky. And yet the bird is a silhouette, a cut-out, its shape filled with a foliage that appears to be a continuation of the woodland in the background in the lower portion of the painting. This picture is filled with the strangeness and poetry so unique to the vision Magritte.
By the time Le printemps was painted, circa 1965, Magritte had long been filtering the visual world from his unique perspective, taking the simple elements and assumptions from everyday life and converting them, twisting them, giving them just enough of a nudge and a disruption that they would take on new qualities. In this picture, Magritte has chosen a selection of simple elements bird, trees, eggs and reconfigured their properties to marvellous effect. In turn, the genuine world of visual impetus surrounding the viewer regains some of its poetry and mystery - when next we see a bird, we no longer take for granted the strangeness of its ability to fly or the uniqueness of its appearance. Le printemps has been painted in such a way as to give a sense of stillness, even contemplation, that is deliberately at odds with the dynamism of flight; the trees, too, which comprise the bird's body imply rootedness and therefore stillness. They imply a link to the ground which is not there, Magritte presenting the viewer with a range of paradoxes, riddles to which there is no true answer and which beg us only to look upon the world around us as a riddle, a source of mystery and wonder.
Magritte himself explained that the elements that comprise his works are not stand-ins for other meanings, are not products of the worlds of dream and the subconscious that had so fascinated other artists associated with the Surreal. 'In the images I paint, there is no question of either dream, escape, or symbols,' Magritte explained.
'My images are not substitutes for either sleeping or waking dreams. They do not give us the illusion of escaping from reality. They do not replace the habit of degrading what we see into conventional symbols, old or new.
'I conceive painting as the art of juxtaposing colours in such a way that their effective aspect disappears and allows a poetic image to become visible. This image is the total description of a thought that unites-- in a poetic order-- familiar figures of the visible: skies, people, trees, mountains, furniture, stars, solids, inscriptions, etc. The poetic order evokes mystery, it responds to our natural interest in the unknown.
'Poetic images are visible, but they are as intangible as the universe. These poetic images hide nothing: they show nothing but the figures of the visible. Painting is totally unfitted for representing the invisible, that is, what cannot be illuminated by the light: pleasure, sorrow, knowledge and ignorance, speech and silence, etc.
'After having attempted to understand non-traditional painting, we admit that it cannot be understood. In any case, we are not assuming any serious responsibility: we do not have to know or to learn anything. Imaginary irrationality is futile and boring. However, we can understand poetic thought by making it a part of ourselves and by taking care not to remove from the known the unknown elements it contains' (R. Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, translated by R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 224).
In Le printemps, it is clear, then, that the bird, the eggs, the woodland are not symbols, but are there representing themselves, bringing to light their own particularities and peculiarities, making us all the more aware of their singular properties, in short, forcing the viewer to contemplate the 'unknown elements' that they contain.
During Magritte's career, he became increasingly adept at converting his vision of the mysteries of the world into pictures that, through their iconic simplicity, conveyed their messages all the more strikingly. Where some of his earlier Surreal pictures had a wealth of details and juxtapositions, from the 1930s onwards, he pared back the elements, making each one pack a far greater punch. It is in its simplicity that Le printemps gains its strange, distinctive, revelatory power. By limiting himself to only a few elements bird, sky, nest, parapet, woodland Magritte succeeds in presenting the viewer with a concise range of objects and, crucially, a concise range of the relationships between them. The sense of impossibility within the realm of this Magrittean epiphany is exemplified by the interplay between, for instance, the egg-filled nest and the foliage-bird-- could such a strange, two-dimensional, cut-out bird have laid eggs? This quandary recalls the stone eagle shown above a parapet furnished with an egg-filled nest in Le domaine d'Arnheim. Where in that work, the bird is made of mountain, in Le printemps the eggs appear (within the two-dimensional world of the picture) three-dimensional, painted in the round as opposed to the silhouette-like bird. The interplays between the elements in this painting even throw the sky itself into question. After all, if the bird is a cut-out, are the trees behind the sky? It is confronting us with these simple, sometimes discreet interplays, juxtapositions, relationships, contrasts and comparisons, with incongruities and incompatibilities, that Magritte prompts us towards a more awe-filled appreciation of the world.
In the 1930s, many of Magritte's pictures dealt with problems and questions, riddles posed by simple elements such as the door, the window, the sea, the horse... In a sense, flight and the bird are the 'problems' that Magritte has attempted to solve in Le printemps. However, these 'problems,' as Magritte was at pains to point out, 'are not themes. These are images that come together, that impose themselves upon me. Always images of the simplest objects, those anyone can see around him: a hat, a bell, an apple, an easel, a bird, a street lamp, a brick wall, shoes, a three-piece suit. Except that sometimes the hat is resting on the apple, the bird is made of stone, the shoes are feet with real toes, the brick wall takes the form of a desk, and the three-piece suit is really a pleasant valley. These ideas for combining images occur to me without my looking for them' (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 202). This statement is important as it reveals the extent to which inspiration, pure and simple, would provide Magritte's pictorial solutions. These were ideas that would occur to the artist, not as the result of active investigation, but instead as miniature revelations.
Many of Magritte's pictures, especially his iconic La trahison des images, in which a painting of a pipe was accompanied by a caption stating that this was not a pipe, deal with the properties and limitations of the act of representation. The picture of a pipe clearly is not a pipe, as Magritte pointed out. In Le printemps, Magritte appears to question the nature of the two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world in part through the visual puzzle with which the viewer is presented, and also through the deliberate cut-out appearance of the bird itself. Is Magritte deliberately pointing out the flatness of painting in comparison to the 'depth' of the real world? Is he implying that another dimension lies beyond our grasp, beyond the veil of our prosaic, habit-numbed appreciation of the world around us?
The interplays in Le printemps are brought into bolder relief by the title, which reinforces the notions of the verdant foliage, life, birth and rebirth introduced by the various elements depicted. Magritte's titles, which were sometimes suggested by his friends rather than being integrally linked to his works, are nonetheless evocative, and he was well aware of the way in which they could add an extra dimension to his works, an extra layer of questioning, an extra layer of interpretation, or to be interpreted. As he himself stated, 'The titles of my paintings accompany them like the names attached to objects without illustrating or explaining them' (R. Magritte, letter to Barnet Hodes, 1957, quoted in ibid., p. 203).