‘Mystery is not one of the possibilities of the real. Mystery is that which is necessary, absolutely, for there to be such a thing as the real’ (Magritte quoted in D. Sylvester, René Magritte Catalogue raisonné, vol. III, London, 1993, p. 107).
René Magritte’s Quand l’heure sonnera presents the viewer with an enigmatic scene conjured through an elegantly restrained assortment of objects: a torso stands in the foreground, a sandy landscape stretching from it to the breaking waves of the seashore. Meanwhile, hovering in the sky, is a distant hot air balloon. Immediately, Quand l’heure sonnera introduces juxtapositions that appear to hark back to some of Magritte’s earliest and most formative compositions, while maintaining the crisp refinement that had come with the decades of experience that had seen him become one of the most recognised artists in the world. It is a tribute to the importance of this picture that it was formerly in the collection of Gustave J. Nellens, who was closely involved with Magritte in a number of projects in the post-war years and who owned a range of his compatriot’s works.
Looking at Quand l’heure sonnera, the viewer can perceive various themes that underpin the juxtapositions which render this scene so poetic. There is the contrast between the weight of the torso and the lightness of the balloon, between stillness and movement. Both elements also evoke rich though differing senses of isolation: one is stranded within the vastness of the unpeopled landscape, the other hovering in the broad infinity of the heavens.
The seemingly-abandoned, apparently classical torso in Quand l’heure sonnera recalls the indifference of the rigours of passing time, becoming an eloquent memento mori. Indeed, it recalls a sense of the demise of empires evoked in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, in which a traveller tells of the sculpted legs and bust that he had seen in the desert:
‘… Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away’
(from P. B. Shelley, Ozymandias, London, 1818).
In Quand l’heure sonnera, the sense that we are viewing an ancient sculpture from a modern perspective is accentuated by the presence of the balloon itself. This juxtaposition recalls the pictures of Giorgio de Chirico, which had been such a vital touchstone for Magritte early in his career. Indeed, it was the epiphany of seeing a reproduction of De Chirico’s Le chant d’amour, which showed a classical bust next to a rubber glove and a ball with a train passing in the background, that had revealed to Magritte the futility of his previous way of painting, introducing new vistas of pictorial potential. Discussing that painting in La ligne de vie, an autobiographical lecture given in 1938, Magritte would explain:
‘This triumphant poetry replaced the stereotyped effects of traditional painting. It was a total break with the mental habits characteristic of artists who were prisoners of talent, virtuosity, and all the minor aesthetic specialities. It meant a new vision in which the spectator rediscovered his isolation and listened to the world’s silence’ (Magritte in 1938, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, p. 214).
While these words are equally applicable to Quand l’heure sonnera, the shared DNA between Magritte’s composition and De Chirico’s vision becomes even more evident when one compares it to another of the Italian artist’s early masterpieces, L’incertitude du poète of 1913, now in the Tate, London. In that work, De Chirico showed a classical torso next to a large bunch of bananas; an arcade of porticoes stretches into a harbour background which is being traversed by a locomotive, shown in the distance with its billowing clouds of steam puffing into the air. In a sense, Quand l’heure sonnera appears to be a riposte to De Chirico’s L’incertitude du poète, with the train replaced by the balloon; however, Magritte has distilled the composition down to its purest essence.
Magritte may well have seen L’incertitude du poète when he lived in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s, at which time it was owned by the poet Paul Eluard. Certainly Magritte and Eluard came to know each other well during this period, and would remain in touch, sometimes collaborating and creating dialogues through their respective works. The notion that L’incertitude du poète might have been a potential, partial source of inspiration for Quand l’heure sonnera becomes all the more viable when one considers that Magritte painted his first version of it in 1932, shortly after his return from the French capital. This was painted in the fertile creative period after Magritte’s discovery of De Chirico but before he had developed his strategy of using pictures as answers to ‘problems’ posed by the world around him. Certainly Quand l’heure sonnera, like its predecessor, taps into the sense of multilayered time that infused De Chirico’s great paintings, as well as making use of powerful juxtapositions between seemingly unrelated objects, juxtapositions that allow the artist to express a sense of underlying mystery that is perhaps hidden yet inherent in the world around us.
At the heart of fusing different periods of time in Magritte’s painting, and in De Chirico’s earlier works, is the presence of a seemingly classical sculpture. This appears to be some relic of an ancient past that has been granted new relevance through the presence of the balloon. Perhaps in part paying homage to De Chirico while also showing how far he moved from his original ideas, Magritte would come to incorporate classical torsos such as the one shown in Quand l’heure sonnera in a number of works over the decades. The first version of Quand l’heure sonnera, in which the sea was absent and the balloon was more imposing, was painted around the same time as a work entitled La belle de nuit which showed a similar sculpture in a three-walled room which peered onto a night landscape. Similar sculptures would reappear in works such as Les marches de l’été of 1938 or 1939, now in the Musée national d’Art moderne, Paris, and the gouache Stimulation objective of the same period. It also made a slightly different appearance in La folie des grandeurs, where a hollow example was shown in a towering, nested, Russian doll-like configuration; examples of that work are in the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., and the Menil Collection, Houston. In addition, Magritte had been commissioned to decorate the Salle de Lustre in the Casino with murals, ultimately producing one of his best-known series of works, Le domaine enchanté.
Magritte appears to have included this torso or similar examples in a number of works in order to invoke ancient art and timelessness. Ironically, Mary Ann Stevens suggested that the sculpture in Magritte’s studio collection, which he would have used for these pictures, was in fact cast from a live model rather than a copy of an actual classical sculpture (see D. Sylvester, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 444). While Magritte may have worked from several similar casts, the best-known example was transformed into a work of art in its own right: in La peinture of 1945, Magritte painted flesh tones and other details onto an example of the torso seen in Quand l’heure sonnera, making it uncannily and impossibly ‘life-like’. This work deliberately cut to the heart of the absurd intellectual transaction that Magritte perceived as underpinning every form of artistic imitation: it begins to look like a live body, despite the absence of head, arms and legs. At the same time, it explores the entire nature of painting and the trompe-l’oeil illusions used in ‘objective’ art, which Magritte would constantly subvert by introducing his own idiosyncratic visions of the mystery that surrounds us through works such as Quand l’heure sonnera.
Where Magritte would often turn to key motifs and themes again and again in his career, creating a range of variations upon them, Quand l’heure sonnera is by contrast a relatively rare subject, having appeared only three times in his oeuvre. The subject lay fallow for decades after the first example from 1932; however, it may have been relatively well known as it was illustrated in Herbert Read’s book, Art & Society, which was published in 1937 and again in 1945. A gouache version was commissioned in 1957-58 by the Chicago collector, Barnet Hodes, who may have seen the illustration in Read’s book. Hodes amassed a formidable array of works on paper by Magritte, many of them reincarnations, revisits and reinventions of subjects that he particularly appreciated, and which he would mention to the artist. Perhaps it was because of this gouache version that Magritte then returned to the subject of Quand l’heure sonnera just under a decade later, creating this particularly refined composition in oil on canvas.
Quand l’heure sonnera was one of several paintings that Magritte created during this period for one of his most important patrons and collectors, Gustave J. Nellens. This was a particularly important time in their collaboration, as Nellens had just helped to finance one of the most important and lavish books published on Magritte during his own lifetime, the 1964 monograph by Patrick Waldberg. Nellens was a prominent supporter of Surrealism in Belgium, and indeed of art in general. He was the owner of the Casino at Knokke-le-Zoute, as well as a renowned hotel, La Réserve. He would use both these venues for exhibitions, showing a range of artists over the years including Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and indeed Magritte himself in an important 1962 retrospective. In addition, Magritte had been commissioned to decorate the Salle de Lustre in the Casino with murals, ultimately producing one of his best-known works, Le domaine enchanté.
The relationship between Nellens and Magritte appeared to have suffered during the period of the large-scale commission, but it clearly enjoyed a robust recovery, as is indicated by the number of pictures that the artist painted for him, as well as his participation in exhibitions and publications celebrating and promoting the artist. A broad range of works from Nellens’ own collection focussing on Belgian art was shown the year before his death in an exhibition held at the Pallazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara in 1970, including Magritte’s Quand l’heure sonnera. The link between artistic patronage and the Casino at Knokke was continued by Nellens’ heirs, who also inherited swathes of his collection. Indeed, a mural was painted by Keith Haring in the space leading to the Salle de Lustre in 1987.