Incorporating an image of a painting into the picture itself, as René Magritte did repeatedly from the late 1920s onward, was one of the most effective and infinitely renewable pictorial devices that the artist developed to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of reality and lay bare the mystery that he believed was inherent in the everyday world. Painted in February 1959, in Le Sabbat, Magritte welcomes the viewer into his unique and surreal world; using objects from reality yet altering their usual associations by displacing them: here, a painting sits on an easel, a landscape beyond it, and yet the two have little in common: the nocturnal landscape that spreads before us has, it is implied, been represented in the picture-within-a-picture by a still life, which in fact is upside down.
Magritte had first begun to explore the theme of a picture within a picture having been inspired in the 1920s 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 or in front of windows such as La condition humaine, 1933 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). 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 paintings, Magritte disrupted the notion of painting “as a window on the world”, highlighting the artifice of painting itself.
Le Sabbat draws directly upon the shock of recognition and the epiphany that Magritte himself had experienced when he first came across the work of de Chirico. “This triumphant poetry” Magritte wrote of the revelation of seeing de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings for the first time, “supplanted the stereotyped effect of the traditional painting. It represented a complete break with the mental habits peculiar to artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the little aesthetic specialties. It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognize his own isolation and hear the silence of the world” (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 71). Following the revelation that Magritte experienced in seeing de Chirico’s work, he embarked on the creation of a completely new type of picture in which the structures of painting and representation were not only exposed as the artifices they were, but also, as here in this work, forms aimed at exposing the innate enchantment and deeper mysteries of reality and perception. In order to do this Magritte had to abandon the faux cubo-futurist style of painting he had hitherto been practicing and embraced a new, objective style of painting in which objects were rendered in a simple, dry, matter-of-fact, manner. In what he called a “detached way of representing objects [which] seems to me related to a universal style, in which idiosyncrasies and minor predilections of an individual no longer count” (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 110).
In the present work, Magritte evokes the mystery of representation in a different way, by showing a picture on an easel that is both possible and impossible—in its being upside-down—and wholly incongruous, because of its apparent lack of relationship with the scenery behind it. There is no room even for a game of disjointed association. There are no links. This is a realm of magic, and it is through this jarring magic that the viewer perceives all the more the mystery of painting. For it is the painting on the easel that is the main theme, the main motif, in Le Sabbat. “There is a familiar feeling of mystery experienced in relation to things that are customarily labelled ‘mysterious’”, Magritte explained in 1958, the year before he painted the present work, “but the supreme feeling is the unfamiliar feeling of mystery, experienced in relation to things that it is customary to ‘consider natural’…We must consider the idea that a ‘marvellous’ world manifests itself in the ‘usual’ world… Instead of being astonished by the superfluous existence of another world, it is our one world, where coincidences surprise us, that we must not lose sight of” (Magritte, 1958 in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte, Selected Writings, trans. J. Levy, Surrey, 2016, p. 281).
This theme had been explored two years earlier in a pair of works both titled Le réveille-matin (The Alarm Clock) (Sylvester, nos. 861 & 862). In these paintings, an upside-down still-life is shown upon an easel before a sprawling daytime landscape. By taking an artistic genre that is so completely wedded to reality—the still-life—Magritte heightens the effect of his visual disruption. The still-life is supposed to mirror the world; here, this concept is literally turned upside down. Not only does the painting depict a completely different image to the scene stretching out beyond, but it is also oriented incorrectly, making this strange scene all the more beguiling. Magritte described Le réveille-matin and the related Le Sabbat: “The theme in my view is as follows: a picture the wrong way round—whatever the subject thus represented—in something (a landscape for example) the right way round. It would be possible to do a version of the picture Le réveille-matin with a face (or a landscape) in it the wrong way round. But if I paint a picture resting on an easel and representing, for instance, an afternoon sky the right way round in front of a night sky, the theme is different, in spite of the presence of the picture and the easel” (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, 1993, p. 306).
Indeed, in Le Sabbat the moonlit night heightens this mystery, and, the fact that the picture within Le Sabbat is small, it emphasizes the landscape behind, ensuring that the viewer's attention is focused on the seemingly discordant relationship between what has been seen and what has been painted. The painting is only truly “revealed” by Magritte through its association, or lack thereof, to the landscape. And in this, the artist manages to illustrate the strangeness of perception itself. It is not the act of painting alone whose strange pitfalls and bizarre, even illogical, mechanics are exposed, but also the very act of seeing—“seeing” in the present painting involves looking at a landscape, but yet seeing a still life.
Adding an extra layer of the mysterious to Le Sabbat and heightening this sense that perception itself should not be taken for granted and should not be so rigid as it can often become, Magritte has not only inverted the still life image, but has also included within it a vase that appears to be made of stone, lending it a monumentality that itself adds to the visual drama of the gravity-defying ceiling-hugging still life. Despite this, there is nothing strictly impossible within Le Sabbat—yet an atmosphere of the unreal nevertheless pervades the work. As the artist once explained: “I must inform you however that words such as unreal, unreality, imaginary, seem unsuited to a discussion of my painting,” he explained. “I am not in the least curious about the 'imaginary,' nor about the 'unreal'. For me, it's not a matter of painting 'reality' as though it were readily accessible to me and to others, but of depicting the most ordinary reality in such a way that this immediate reality loses its tame or terrifying character and finally presents itself with its mystery. Understood in this way, that reality has nothing 'unreal' or 'imaginary' about it” (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 70).
Magritte's pictures, then, are revelations, little epiphanies that still reverberate with that initial moment of lucidity that the artist himself had felt when seeing de Chirico's Le chant d'amour in reproduction for the first time. That sudden awareness of the almost alchemical poetry that somehow exists in our world—just beyond the layer that our eyes see—is forcefully brought to our attention in the deliberately discordant lyricism of Le sabbat.
Magritte’s own words when plagued by critics or interviewers trying to shed light on the hidden meanings of his paintings, resolutely denounced such interpretations, stating, “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” (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, p. 408).