Bearing a title likely derived from the philosopher Nicolas de Malebranche’s eponymous two-volume treatise, La Recherche de la verité presents a fantastical juxtaposition of exquisitely rendered forms. At right, a fish stands squarely on its fin as if hung by an imaginary hook. Though removed from its usual context, the image of the fish draws natural affinities with the seascape that lies just beyond the stony ledge. The creature’s scaled exterior resonates with the mottled camouflage pattern of the walls surrounding it. A similar work in oil in the collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium allows comparison between mediums and highlights the incandescent effect achieved in gouache in the present work (see fig. 1). A master draftsman, Magritte’s precise handling of the luminous medium builds depth within the composition, balancing the shimmering, almost metallic tones of white, warm gray and light blue against the dusky blues and grays of the stone and fish. Upon close inspection, the lofty clouds in the distance are crafted with dappled shapes similar to those of the stone, drawing further parallels between the two objects’ seemingly contrasting qualities of heft and levity.
When removed from their ordinary context, Magritte’s objects challenge the viewer’s notion of perception, language and reality in an eminently Postmodern fashion. Heavily influenced by the theories of Nietzsche, Magritte sought to remove an object from its signifier and draw attention to the fallacy of language, and by extension, the imagery represented in painting—resulting in some of his most renowned works like The Treachery of Images. Over the course of his career, Magritte also built up a sort of visual lexicon, reconfiguring his favored motifs to create new and inventive compositions. Arising from the artist’s mature oeuvre, the present work reprises a number of themes from his earlier career, including the stone ledge, crystalline sea, cloud-dotted sky and the errant fish. The aquatic creature first appeared in the artist’s work around 1935, taking the form of a sort of reverse mermaid with a fish for a head and female body from the waist down—the theme of which was later featured at the center of a rocky seascape in 1953 (see fig. 2).
Magritte purposefully selected incongruous titles for his works, inventing elegant non-sequiturs and adopting the suggestions of his contemporaries, and often scoffing at simple and popular interpretations of such opaque designations. While “the titles of paintings were chosen in such a way as to inspire in the spectator an appropriate mistrust of any mediocre tendency to facile self-assurance” (S. Gablik, Magritte, Greenwich, 1970, p. 183), the literary sources from which such titles were co-opted sheds light on the intellectual and philosophical proclivities of the artist. “That pictorial experience which puts the real world on trial, gives me a belief in the infinity of possibilities as yet unknown to life” (ibid., p. 185).
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