Against a background of calm turquoise waters and a bright summer sky scudded with fluffy cumulus, two women are shown in silhouette, their figures cleanly cut from some sort of paper or metal template (D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, p. 302), which has now been set aflame. The woman on the right raises both arms aloft, a bird delicately alighting on her left hand, a flower pinched between the fingers of her right. A stone ledge in the foreground acts as a repoussoir device, separating our space from that of the painting and suggesting that the seascape is viewed through a window (or perhaps it is the artist’s own creation, a painted backdrop, like a stage set). On the ledge are a series of objects–four leaves, a russet-colored cloth, a mysterious orb–that appear solid and tangible. The figures, on the other hand, are made not of flesh but of water and air, and the stencil that bounds them–that gives them their reality, however tentative–is being rapidly consumed by fire, that most transcendent of elements, the transition between the inanimate and the animate. Is this the grand screen of reality, flaming up, revealing the void within?
Magritte painted this enigmatic canvas–by turns profoundly alluring and deeply unsettling–in the latter half of 1942, during the darkest days of the Occupation of Belgium. In May 1940, less than a week after German troops invaded Belgium and Holland, Magritte had fled Brussels for France; he left behind his wife Georgette, their relationship still suffering the impact of affairs that each had in the late 1930s (Magritte with the Surrealist model Sheila Legge, Georgette with the poet Paul Colinet). After spending just three months in Carcassonne, however, the artist returned to Belgium and reconciled with Georgette. He painted little during the first full year of the war, disheartened by the deprivations, the tedium, and the dangers of the Occupation. But by early 1941, he had begun to rebound from this momentary impasse: “All my latest pictures are leading me toward the simplified painting that I have long wanted to achieve,” he wrote to his friend and patron Claude Spaak in January. “It is in short the ever more rigorous search for what, in my view, is the essential element in art; purity and precision in the image of mystery which becomes decisive through being shorn of everything incidental or accidental” (quoted in ibid., p. 288).
Some of Magritte’s paintings from 1941-1942 are full of menace and foreboding: Les eaux profondes, for instance, in which an oversized raven perches beside a black-clad woman, whose head is a plaster cast resembling the mythic death mask of an unknown girl who drowned in the Seine; or La Mémoire, in which the cast is wounded and dripping blood (Sylvester, nos. 491 and 505). In another group of paintings, however, Magritte took a different tack, turning his back on the violence of wartime and aiming instead to convey a sense of delectation and pleasure. In a letter to the poet Paul Eluard dated December 1941, Magritte cited as the first instance of this new approach the optimistically entitled L’Embellie or The Break in the Clouds (Sylvester, no. 492), an image of three female bathers–a modern-day Three Graces–seen from behind; this painting provided Magritte with the starting point for the present composition the next year. “Magritte’s work was going to change, and change consciously, in the face of war,” David Sylvester has written, “and the direction it was going to take was towards an eschewal of violence–sometimes a disquiet in which any menace was subdued, sometimes even a feeling of positive reassurance” (op. cit., 2009, pp. 316-319).
“My fit of exhaustion is almost over (it will never completely go, I think) and for some time I have been working with interest,” Magritte explained in the letter to Eluard. “Doubtless I had to find a way of producing what was bothering me: pictures in which ‘the bright side’ of life would be the area to be exploited. By this I mean the whole traditional range of charming things, women, flowers, birds, trees, the atmosphere of happiness, etc. And if I have managed to bring fresh air into my painting, it is through the fairly powerful charm which is now substituted in my paintings for the disturbing poetry that I once struggled to achieve. Generally speaking, pleasure cancels out a whole series of worries that I want increasingly to disregard.”
“So that you can better understand what I am aiming at,” Magritte continued, “let me remind you of Black Magic, one of my old pictures which was the starting point of this quest for pleasure [Sylvester, no. 355]. I have continued along these lines. The Break in the Clouds shows three female nudes in front of the sea and seen from behind. One is showing a rose to the sea, another is showing her body, and the third is showing an egg to the bird... If these things must have an additional justification, although their charm is enough to render it unnecessary, I would say that the power of these pictures is that they make us sharply aware of all the imperfections of everyday life” (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, pp. 290-291).
Painted a year after L’Embellie, as the war continued to rage, the present canvas retains some of that painting’s evident charms but heightens its play of reality and illusion to a disconcerting degree. “A strong sense of disquiet is invariably present in Magritte’s paintings–even in the most outwardly benign and sunny,” Sarah Whitfield has written (Magritte, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, no. 82). The seductive landscape and statuesque female forms are still there, but now the curtains that enclose the scene in L’Embellie have fallen away–quite literally, to judge by the russet-colored drape that lays crumpled on the sill in the foreground. Rather than being framed as if on stage, arrayed for the viewer’s delectation while they themselves contemplate the landscape, the figures (two now, rather than three) are confined within a Wagnerian ring of fire. In a process of eerie metamorphosis, the rippling flesh of the Three Graces in L’Embellie has here become negative space that gives way to the painted landscape beyond: “Black magic,” Magritte explained. “It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky” (quoted in ibid., p. 187).
Heightening the sense of mystery that pervades the present painting is the title that Magritte inscribed on the reverse of the canvas–Les demoiselles de l’Isle-Adam, a reference to the French Symbolist writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889), whose novels, stories, and plays are often fantastic in plot and filled with mystery and horror, à la Edgar Allan Poe. Magritte often took inspiration from literature, film, and music when coming up with titles for his paintings, and he also invited suggestions from his friends and Surrealist cohorts. The poet Louis Scutenaire, a regular Sunday visitor to the artist’s home, is said to have put forth the present title, which–as so often in Magritte’s work from 1930 onward–has only the most evocative or indirect relationship with the imagery of the painting. “The poetic title has nothing to teach us, instead it should surprise us and enchant us,” Magritte insisted. “The title maintains the same rapport with the painted form as the forms maintain among themselves. The forms are assembled in an order that evokes mystery. The title is associated with the painted figure according to the same order” (quoted in C. Grunenberg and D. Pih, eds., Magritte A to Z, London, 2011, pp. 170-175).
The present painting also has an illustrious early history. It belonged to Gustave Nellens, owner of the seaside Casino Communal at Knokke-Le-Zoute in Belgium, who commissioned Magritte in 1953 to design a panoramic mural–Le domaine enchanté–to adorn the walls of one of his gaming rooms (the Salle de Lustre, so named because it contained the largest chandelier in Europe). Magritte painted eight canvases for the project, which represent a synthesis of his favorite ideas from the preceding two decades; these were then enlarged to monumental scale under Magritte’s supervision. The centerpiece of the decorative ensemble was the figure of a nude woman holding a dove aloft, a motif that has its origins in the present painting and the related Embellie (Sylvester, no. 791.2; sale, Christie’s, New York, 5 November 2013, lot 35).
FIG. A René Magritte, L’Embellie, 1941. Private Collection. BARCODE: nyrphxuf
FIG. B René Magritte, Les marches de l’été, 1938-1939. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. BARCODE: nyrphxtx
FIG. C René Magritte, Le Retour, 1940. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. BARCODE: nyrphxty
FIG. D René Magritte, L’île au trésor, 1942. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. BARCODE: nyrphxtz
FIG. E René Magritte, La magie noire, 1945. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. BARCODE: nyrphxua
FIG. F René Magritte, La Mémoire, 1948. Belgian State Collection. BARCODE: nyrphxub