'I have always felt that, in spite of any disclaimer he himself might make, René Magritte is the most genuine of the surrealists... This assumes that we define surrealism as a logical extension of realism. Other surrealists - Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí - either distort the existing order (distort the perceptual image) or substitute for it a world of fantasy. Magritte, however, keeps to a literal representation of perceptual images, but by shuffling the cards, so to speak, produces an effect of super-reality, a reality intensified by a dislocation of the images. The distinction between fantasy and imagination has never been a precise one, but I would always cite Magritte as an example of a truly imaginative artist.'
(H. Read, quoted in Magritte: Paintings, Drawings, Gouaches, exh. cat., Obelisk Gallery, London, 1961, p. 33).
Les compagnons de la peur was painted in 1942 and therefore ranks as one of the earliest of René Magritte’s pictures of what would become one of his most recognised motifs: the leaf-bird. This painting has featured in a string of important exhibitions of Magritte’s works, including several lifetime shows. Among these, of particular note were the exhibition at the Obelisk Gallery in London in 1961, which resulted in his first visit to the British capital since before the Second World War, and his 1966 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. That show later travelled to a number of destinations - as did Magritte himself, when he visited the United States for the opening.
Of the early examples featuring images of the ‘leaf-bird’, Les compagnons de la peur is the largest; three other paintings dating from around 1942 are all significantly smaller. Of those, L’île au trésor (Sylvester; no. 498) is now in the collection of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, having been bequeathed by Magritte’s widow, Georgette, who herself had bought the picture back from a collector (see D. Sylvester, René Magritte Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 294). Another image showing owls and entitled Les compagnons de la peur is the gouache version, also of 1942, likewise now held by the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
There are several clear differences between Les compagnons de la peur and L’île au trésor and the various pictures that have been given that title. Crucially, those other works show birds rooted into the soil of an island, as opposed to the alpine landscape of Les compagnons de la peur. Perhaps it is in keeping with this mountainous backdrop that in Les compagnons de la peur Magritte has chosen to depict owls, rather than pigeons. These vigilant, predatory creatures, more frequently heard at night than seen during the day, are here presented in a watchful cluster, surveying their surroundings.
The birds clearly have an affinity with their setting. At the same time, the nature of their new incarnation, part fauna and part flora, reveals a new incongruity. These are birds: fight is one of their key properties and characteristics. Yet here they have been melded with the sphere of plant life and become rooted to the ground. In this way, the ‘leaf-bird’ can be seen as an extension of Magritte’s long-standing fascination with fight and buoyancy. Some of Magritte’s paintings would show, say, clouds sitting on the ground or a castle perched on an impossibly floating rock. In the 1930s, he had also explored the motif of mountains formed as though resembling a petrified eagle in works entitled Le précurseur, a theme that would later be transported into other works named Le domaine d’Arnheim. In a sense, those mountain-hawks are a form of precedent to Les compagnons de la peur: here, instead of blending the realms of mineral and animal, though, Magritte has fused animal and vegetable, creating hybrid entities which help the viewer to understand more about birds, about fight and about the slow vertical climb of plants as they grow. At the same time, the link between birds and plants may have been suggested in part by the similarity in shape of leaves and feathers that clad them. Certainly, in other works, Magritte would show birds perching on the veins of his leaf-trees, underscoring this connection between flora and fauna in his mind. In another group of works, he even showed cut-out-like silhouettes of birds made of the forest, showing the profundity with which trees and birds are linked, bringing this natural affinity to the attention of his viewer through unusual and unorthodox means.
Les compagnons de la peur was painted in 1942, during the Occupation of Belgium in the midst of the Second World War. Magritte did not really paint the war in the way that some artists felt compelled to do. However, during the earlier years of the conflict, an atmosphere of foreboding entered some of his pictures; this may well be perceived in the apparent watchfulness of the owl-plants in Les compagnons de la peur - and indeed in its title. The birds are huddled together, half predators, half targets, bound to the ground they occupy. These largely solitary birds are here shown seeking safety in numbers in their mountain fastness. Even in the companion pictures showing birds on an island, there is a sense of both stranding and refuge that may well reflect some of the ambience in Belgium at the time. This would be all the more true considering the number of Magritte’s associates in international Surrealism whose works had fallen foul to the Nazi authorities, being deemed ‘Entartete Kunst’. This had caused a number of his contemporaries to fee France when the war had begun; Magritte had also fed to France, but, separated from his wife Georgette, had turned back and undertaken an epic journey to return home to be with her. Throughout this period, despite being in Nazi-occupied Belgium, he continued to paint and indeed to publish his works - a monograph written during this time even featured surprisingly lavish colour illustrations.
It was only shortly after Les compagnons de la peur was painted that Magritte, having long struggled with the question of how to respond to the war as an artist, developed his faux-Impressionist technique, a visual idiom that was intended to bring light and humour to his viewers - as well as a shock. The pictures worked on all these fronts, outraging even some of his loyal supporters. However, Les compagnons de la peur was painted before this epiphany, making it all the rarer, remaining rooted in a more sinister moment. It is the product of a time of intense questioning on Magritte’s part, a period during which he sought inspiration and found a number of pictorial solutions. Many of these would continue to remain in his visual arsenal for the rest of his life, not least the bird-leaf itself. This motif’s importance would be reaffirmed on a monumental scale when it became one of the subjects that Magritte included in his large-scale mural programme for the Casino communal de Knokke just over a decade after he had painted Les compagnons de la peur.
When Les compagnons de la peur was owned by Jack Stafford, a London-based collector, it was lent to the Obelisk Gallery for its 1961 show of Magritte’s works. Magritte himself travelled to London for the opening, albeit reluctantly, as he wrote to his friend Harry Torczyner earlier: ‘I have no desire at all to go to London, but I will probably have to give in to the pressure of my wife, who feels that my presence at the opening is indispensable and that I must respond to the invitations I receive, too many to my taste’ (Magritte, letter to Torczyner, 9 September 1961, quoted in R. Magritte, Magritte/Torczyner: Letters Between Friends, New York, 1994, p. 66).
The show was a significant event. At one point, it was advertised in The Arts Review in conjunction with another exhibition showing a group of works largely taken from the collection of E.L.T. Mesens, held at the Grosvenor Gallery. The two shows became very separate, however, in part a legacy of the changing relationship between Mesens and Philip M. Laski, the main organiser of the Obelisk exhibition. This reached a culmination when the Daily Express reported that Laski had told Mesens to steer clear of his own show, in response to which Magritte himself had said: ‘It is very much in the surrealist tradition to have a row. I would have been disappointed if there hadn’t been one’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, René Magritte Catalogue raisonné, vol. III, London, 1993, p. 115).
For the Obelisk Gallery exhibition in which Les compagnons de la peur was featured - and was one of only eight pictures selected for illustration in the catalogue - Laski worked hard to prepare a significant show, borrowing works from a wide range of collectors. He also assembled an impressive catalogue that contained an essay written by Magritte which was translated by Laski himself. In addition to this there were important bibliographies and exhibition histories as well as a range of statements, quotes and poems from a number of significant figures from the avant garde including poets, critics, collectors and artists alike, such as Jean Arp, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, René Gaffé, Wifredo Lam, Man Ray and Roland Penrose. The inclusion of Breton’s text in particular revealed the steady rapprochement between he and Magritte over the preceding years. In the aftermath of these shows and of his visit, Magritte would write to Torczyner, saying that, ‘Both of my London exhibitions inspired reviews (favourable but devoid of intelligence) in the major newspapers. There seem to have been many visitors’ (Magritte, letter to Torczyner, 12 October 1961, quoted in R. Magritte, Magritte/Torczyner: Letters Between Friends, New York, 1994, pp. 67-68).
Almost half a decade later, Les compagnons de la peur was included in one of the most important large-scale retrospectives of Magritte’s lifetime, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965, organised by James Thrall Soby and William C. Seitz. This show later travelled extensively through the United States and helped to consolidate Magritte’s subsequent international reputation. Soby had the advantage of Magritte’s own input in the preparations for the exhibition and the catalogue alike; similarly, Torczyner took Seitz to visit Magritte in Belgium in order to discuss plans for the show (see D. Sylvester, op. cit., vol. III, 1993, pp. 130-32). Again, Magritte travelled to the opening of this exhibition, apparently benefitting from the airline Sabena’s use of his images in their publicity to be able to fly in some comfort. A cover letter to the press announced: ‘René Magritte, famous Surrealist artist will be guest of honor at the preview of his exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art this evening. Mr. and Mrs. Magritte arrived from Belgium a few days ago accompanied by their dog’ (press release, reproduced at www.moma.org). Indeed, Loulou - the canine in question – was permitted to travel in the passenger compartment with the artist and Georgette. Following this exhibition, Magritte also travelled to Houston, visiting the Menil family, who were great supporters of his work. Les compagnons de la peur was also featured in what was to become one of the last lifetime retrospectives of Magritte’s work, held in 1967 in Rotterdam.