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Whilst fellow Surrealists such as Ernst & Masson rely on the outlandish and insane to communicate their ideas, Magritte operates within a paradox, his paintings reaching abstraction through the presentation of a familiar reality. Amidst his skilful natural brushwork there comes a truthfulness to whatever his diverse mind imagines, experiences here then becoming surreal and uncomfortable precisely because of the intrusion of the commonplace.
‘Collective Invention’ – 1934
We see this in the quietly disturbing, yet oddly logical, Collective Invention. With its anatomically reversed mermaid, featuring a fish top and eroticized female bottom half, lying stranded and helpless out on an anonymous shore.
From the back of the image Magritte has the waves curving forward, gently ushering our eye to the uncomfortably glassy gaze of the unseemly synthesis. This then is not pure fantasy; rather there is logic here that makes it all the more alarming and affecting as neither part of the creature is truly contradictive of the other; the skin tones of the feminine legs fade naturally upward to the steely flesh of the fish as if it was mere evolution. The alluring hips too ache temptingly up out of the skin before the wide dulled fins.
It does however seem to behave more like an animal, its helpless caught pose reminiscent more of a drying silent fish than a human. The potential though for it to stand and move is what disturbs me most, to see this creation upright would for me be that true lapsing into unreality. Classically indicative of the painter’s style & tone however, we as an audience aren’t pushed this far in terms of our perceptions. Rather Magritte hangs us on the edge of the incongruous but never fully releases to chaos such as the aforementioned Masson is so fond of doing.
There is of course wonderful technique here too; the delicate wet deposits of damp sand around the creature’s ankles, the slow crawl of the fog to the back of the canvas. Magritte really can paint and it’s quite incredible he could conjure such alarming ideas and still execute them in such an elegant and refined yet cowing manner.
Through such fragmented verisimilitude comes questions, most importantly of all perhaps, where did this come from? Well, the sea behind of course. So why then does it exist? Who caught it? The fish looking out to us seems as ignorant and perplexed as we will always be.
‘The Month of the Grape Harvest’ – 1959
Similar to the feeling that the mutant of Collective Invention could rise up and gawp forward, Magritte within The Month of the Grape Harvest plays menacingly with potential.
Though only two clear rows of the anonymous bowler-hatted men can be seen sealing the window view, more can be discerned by looking deeper. Edges of further hats peek from behind the wall, with a single placid mouth seen also between the crossed shoulders of two men on the right of the pane. Through their synonymous height a clear division between themselves and the view above is defined, a barricade that adopts an odd aggression in spite of the monotone passivity held by all.
There’s a profound poetry here, one that dwells upon the impossibility of keeping out the outside world. Shutting windows or closing doors then is but an illusion that we are in effect stopping anything. Arguably a window that looks out to the world rather than this army of men is just as confrontational in its reminders of a time and existence that carries on without you.
The hollowness of the room suggests that the people themselves are starting out into nothing; Magritte then here showing us nothing confronting nothing, a commonplace occurrence within the world that continues when we shut the blinds or close our eyes.
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