- René Magritte
- LE CALCUL MENTAL
- gouache on paper
Acquired directly from the above in 1963
Le calcul mental is an enchanting image executed with exquisite detail. Magritte has depicted a suburban landscape populated by towering geometric forms. It is a vivid example of Magritte's Surrealist imagination, and exemplifies his approach to artistic consciousness. Didier Ottinger writes that 'The genesis of Magritte's paintings within the thematic framework of his œuvre appears linked to an experimental approach not unlike that of science – Diametrically opposed to the Surrealist poetics endorsed by André Breton – "the dictation of thought, free from any control by reason" (Manifeste de surréalisme, 1924) – Magritte adopted the tools of the mathematician. His paintings became solutions to "problems"' (D. Ottinger in Magritte (exhibition catalogue), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 1993, p. 21). The present works title suggests an acknowledgement on Magritte's behalf of his mathematical approach to artistic invention.
The setting of unworldly objects in an innocuous environment was a major device for Magritte: works such as La Voix des airs (fig. 2) operate in a similar manner to Le calcul mental. Discussing Magritte's work, the artist Ed Ruscha stated that: 'the struggle between the unreality and the reality of the painting is the right kind of struggle to make a great picture' (quoted in Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (exhibition catalogue), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 147).
The present work is related to a highly important oil painting, with the same title, which was destroyed in a fire over twenty years ago. Le calcul mental, painted in 1931, was an early example of the highly-idiosyncratic style for which he is best-known. Subsequently the painting was to be historically important for Magritte, as David Sylvester relates, 'An extensive detail of a painting completed in 1931, Mental Arithmetic [le calcul mental], was reproduced in black and white eight years later on the cover of Useful Mathematics Workbook by Mary A. Potter, published in Boston [fig. 3]. It was the first such borrowing, the quiet beginning of a tide in fashion which has posthumously made Magritte the world's most popular provider of images for covers of paperback books, fiction and non-fiction alike' (D. Sylvester, Magritte, London, 1992, p. 201).
The medium Magritte chose to reprise his most prominent themes was often gouache. This decision not only facilitated his intricate style of representation but also introduced a brighter tone to his compositions. Siegfried Gohr, discussing the importance of the artist's gouaches wrote that 'the coloured works on paper reveal the brilliant talent of Magritte the painter. Even though he repeatedly denied his 'artistry', belittling the traditional habitus of the virtuoso artist genius and emphasizing instead the artist's intellectual work, his gouaches in particular reveal how masterfully he was able to apply his extraordinary gift of visualising his pictorial ideas' (S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, pp. 77-78). In comparison to his oil paintings which often utilised the materials natural inclination to depth and atmospheric effects, gouache depicts its subject in light-filled hues and crystalline clarity.
In the present work Magritte depicts the landscape of his childhood; the ordinariness of the topography contrasts with the geometric purity of the white forms, which lends a utopian air to the composition. The dramatic disparity between expansive landscapes filled by alien elements is a familiar device seen in works such as Les Marches de l'été (fig. 4) in Magritte's work. As early as the 1920s Magritte expressed a desire for a new architecture: 'Up to now, the architect has coped with both the nature of aesthetics and the nature of the house; away with this fence-sitter, let him make way for the construction engineer, and the aesthetic problem will be rid of an irrelevant consideration. In architectural constructions, we will then attain the (maximum current) perfection that mechanics already possesses and that our man-conceived human body will attain... Standardisation is necessary for perfection' (quoted in Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, p. 134).
Fig. 1, René Magritte in Brussels, 1934
Fig. 2, René Magritte, La Voix des airs, 1931, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice
Fig. 3, Useful Mathematics Workbook by Mary A. Potter, published in Boston, 1939
Fig. 4, René Magritte, Les Marches de l'été, 1938-39, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris