Created circa 1954, René Magritte’s delicately coloured gouache Journal intime presents a startling scene in which two men are discovered completely turned to stone, their forms blending into the stark rocky outcrop on which they stand, frozen eternally in a petrified state. This disquieting moment is rendered all the more mysterious by the unexpected surroundings in which they have been found – though dressed like typical city dwellers, the pair appear on a small ledge or pathway high atop a mountain, which offers a spectacular view of the idyllic, untouched landscape below. Exploring themes of transformation and dislocation, the composition captures the innovative nature of Magritte’s creative vision during this stage of his career, as he began to re-examine and expand upon the familiar topics, motifs and subjects which lay at the very core of his unique brand of Surrealism.
Petrification had begun to appear in Magritte’s art around 1950-51, as traditional still-life subjects, landscapes and figures were suddenly transformed entirely into stone. For the artist, subjecting familiar objects and characters to such unexpected, strange transformations was an essential tool in his quest to jolt viewers from their passive acceptance of reality. ‘The creation of new objects; the transformation of known objects; the alteration of certain objects’ substance,’ he explained in a 1938 lecture, ‘all these, in sum, were ways of forcing objects finally to become sensational’ (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, transl. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 216). In the 1920s he explored this idea through the gradual metamorphosis of objects into wood, focusing on the transformation of the sky or the soft flesh of a woman’s torso into the distinctive pattern, colouring and texture of smooth wooden planks. As the 1950s dawned, however, Magritte became fascinated by the impenetrability of stone, proclaiming that unlike man-made objects, ‘stone does not think’ (quoted in interview with J. Goossens, 1966, in A. Blavier, ed., René Magritte: Écrits complets, Paris, 2009, p. 627). This suspension of thought was, in turn, a source of great mystery, casting an impenetrable silence over his subjects.
While initially the petrification paintings focused on inanimate objects, including pieces of fruit and wine bottles (Sylvester, nos. 735 and 736), Magritte soon turned his attention to the human figure. The 1951 composition Le chant de la violette (Sylvester, no. 753) was the first to explore the idea, showing two men in hats and overcoats – one seen from behind, the other clutching a parcel, viewed in profile – apparently hewn from the same rock as their surroundings. As with Journal intime, the power of their transformation to stone lies in the incredible tension between movement and stillness in their forms, between the fleeting moment and the eternal. Both figures have one foot lifted slightly off the ground, suggesting they are in motion, simply crossing paths with one another as they travel independently through the mysterious landscape. Through this small gesture, Magritte imbues the pair with a distinct sense of humanity, transforming them from mere statues placed in a strange context, to human beings going about their everyday business, who have been suddenly transformed through some unknown magical act or curse. Their attire, and particularly the presence of the bowler-hatted man, an emblematic and instantly recognisable character within Magritte’s oeuvre, lends a distinctly modern air to the otherwise timeless scene, making their presence in the stark rocky landscape even more incongruous.
Exuding a profound eeriness and mystery, the statuesque figures at the heart of Journal intime similarly appear to be filled with a quiet energy. Echoing the protagonists of a 1951 oil painting of the same name (Sylvester, no. 761), one of the men reaches towards the other’s eye, as if he is about to remove a stray eyelash impeding his companion’s vision. Sporting a trilby and clutching a briefcase in one hand, this figure appears to be the very definition of a modern urbanite, holding himself still as he receives assistance. When we look closely however, the gesture appears strange, as if the man on the right is carving the other figure from stone, or rather, due to the lack of a tool in his hand, modelling him from clay. As such, the painting may suggest an intriguing reversal of the Pygmalion myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion’s prayers to the goddess Venus are answered, and the beautiful woman he has been sculpting from ivory comes to life through the simple act of a kiss. In contrast, in Journal intime it is the sculptor who transforms, turning to stone as he reaches the final stages in the act of creating his masterpiece.
The idea for introducing petrification into Magritte’s compositions may have developed partly in response to the artist’s renowned Perspective series, which he had begun in 1949. Combining themes of life and death, as well as concepts of appropriation and imitation, the Perspective series wittily paraphrased famed masterpieces, offering a simple yet uncanny twist on their familiar subject matter. In these works Magritte meticulously recreated well-known paintings such as Edouard Manet’s Le Balcon and Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait de Madame Récamier (Sylvester, nos. 710 and 742) and replaced their central figures with wooden, anthropomorphically-posed, coffins. In so doing, Magritte represented the 19th Century protagonists as they would have been in 1949: quite literally as bodies in coffins. Clearly pleased with the shocking and yet humorous effect of this darkly surreal metamorphosis, as well as the iconoclasm of this subversive act, the artist created several variations on the theme, using different artworks to supply the initial creative spark.
In many ways, the theme of petrification in Magritte’s work continues and expands upon the central concepts proposed in the Perspective series – echoing the art of the past, these compositions play with the traditions of painting, challenging their accepted rules and conventions, in order to subvert viewers’ expectations. For example, the largely monochrome palette required to achieve the stone-like effect in works such as Journal intime echoes the highly skilled grisaille technique made fashionable in painting during the Renaissance, adopted by artists such as Giotto, Andrea Mantegna, Michelangelo, Pieter Breugel and Jan van Eyk. Typically employed to mimic the finish of stone sculpture, or as a stylistic shorthand to indicate the events of the distant past, grisaille quickly became a showcase of an artist’s skill, allowing them to achieve astonishing trompe l’oeil effects through a restricted palette of colours.
Similarly, the serene landscape to the right of the rocky outcrop recalls the art of the Italian Quattrocento, and in particular the innovations of Piero della Francesca in the field of landscape painting, employing both linear and atmospheric perspective to create a sense of depth within the composition as the meandering river cuts through the landscape, leading the eye to the mountain range in the distance. Elegantly weaving these different strands together, Journal intime may thus be read as an exploration into the history of painting itself, in which Magritte confronts the artistic traditions of the past, questioning their relevance for a modern audience, and deploying them to new, surprising, creative ends.