Executed in the aftermath of World War II, L’Incendie is a tour-de-force example of Magritte’s steadfast commitment to figurative Surrealism. Even as the work of fellow Surrealists such as Dalí, Ernst and Miró shifted in a more abstract and fantastical direction in the 1930s and 1940s, Magritte’s compositions remained tethered to recognizably naturalistic forms, relying on the juxtaposition of ordinary but unrelated objects and the placement of personnages in irrational surroundings to create jarring psychological tension and unsettling dissonance.
In the present work, five overlapping trees in the form of giant leaves are planted in the center of the composition, their pastel colors a stark contrast to the pitch black sky and the rolling haze behind them. Together, they stand sentinel over a gravelly landscape, casting shadows, despite the darkness of the background, over an uneven barren landscape resembling the lunar surface. The veins of each leaf, which can also be read as ascendant branches of a tree, imbue the scene with a sense of vitality, as if they have been caught in the act of rapid growth. The forms of the tree-leaves, in a stylized manner, resemble human figures. The power of this quintessentially Magritte work lies in the artist’s unmatched ability to reveal and exploit ambiguity and contradiction within seemingly familiar subjects. What appears upon first glance to be a well-balanced and satisfyingly naturalistic picture unravels quickly with further inspection. Are the plant forms trees or leaves? Where are they planted? How can they grow so vibrantly despite the barrenness of this place? Is it night or is it day? These questions remain unresolved, and are indeed unresolvable; within the work itself, the viewer is forever suspended in a state of duality and mystery.
The iconography of tree-leaves has its origin in Magritte’s hybrid plant which first appeared in the 1935 oil La Géante and would recur ubiquitously in myriad variations in his painting over the next several decades (see fig. 2). In a letter to André Breton of July 1934, Magritte commented: “I am trying at the moment to discover what it is in a tree that belongs to it specifically but which would run counter to our concept of a tree” (quoted in David Sylvester, ed., op. cit., vol. II, p. 194). He soon found the answer...in the motif of the tree-leaf: “the tree, as the subject of a problem, became a large leaf the stem of which was a trunk directly planted in the ground” (ibid., p. 194).
Writing about the leaf image in Magritte’s painting, Jacques Meuris observes: “Nature, as Magritte saw it, was an element with the same characteristics, mutatis mutandis, as those with which he invested every object, every thing. There was no ‘naturalist’ tendency in his work, no ecological impulse, not even a poetic transformation of the natural. Nevertheless, trees and leaves, alone or in groups, clad or bare, occasionally nibbled by insects, may be regarded as “individuals”, invested with multifarious feelings, endowed with charms in the various senses of the word” (Jacques Meuris, René Magritte, London, 1988, p. 154).
This work, in composition and subject matter, is closely related to another gouache with the same title executed by the artist in the latter half of 1947 which, in turn, appears to be derived from a similar oil done by Magritte in 1943 (see figs. 3 & 4). In the artist’s own commentary on the 1947 gouache, each tree represents “a leaf of flaming color” (quoted in David Sylvester, op. cit., vol. IV, p. 95). The 1943 oil, however, contains a more Impressionistic background, the dashes of color Pissarro-esque in the quickness of their application and sense of movement. The tree-leaves emerge, more contextually, out of a forest, their colors more flamboyant than in the two later gouaches.
Given its date of execution, it is tempting to read the L’Incendie subject as a metaphor for the flames of war engulfing the European continent at the time. Unlike most of his fellow Surrealists, Magritte never departed for America during the war, instead fleeing Paris for Carcassonne at the onset of the conflict and then settling in his native Belgium to ride out the German occupation. However, rather than channeling the dark mood of life under the Nazis and the anguish of catastrophic violence into his artworks, Magritte decided to pursue tones of joy in an artistic style he dubbed “sunlit Surrealism.”
During this period of his career, Magritte looked to his Impressionist, Fauve and Expressionist forebearers for stylistic inspiration, executing works that were often poorly received by critics and which have long been considered aberrations from his oeuvre. The oil version of L’Incendie from 1943, with its brushy background and bold palette, is a manifestation of this “sunlit” style; yet by late 1947 and early 1948, when the present work and its companion gouache were executed, Magritte began to emerge from this reactionary chapter of his career. Although Magritte's rebellion against the Breton-led faction of Surrealism took on new life in the form of "vache" paintings in mid-1948, the L'Incendie gouaches marked a brief return to his unique and decidedly Surrealist aesthetic. Magritte’s mastery of the gouache medium is particularly evident in the present work, and several other gouaches completed around this time likewise appropriate subjects and reinterpret motifs he had explored at earlier points in his career. As such, L'Incendie is not only stunning in its beauty and iconic in its representation of Magritte's figural Surrealist style, the work offers a window into the artist's own struggle for identity.
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