In 1953, in a Belgian seaside resort, a team of five artists painted a 233-foot-long 360 degree mural full of leaves shaped like birds, inverted mermaids, and women who merge with the sky behind them. Referencing eight oil paintings painted by René Magritte, the artists worked diligently with projectors and paint to complete the artist’s vision.
But the artist himself was not among the painters. Magritte, the Surrealist from whom these wild, imaginative creations sprang, never touched the work during the five or six weeks it took to complete. He simply visited the casino, with his wife and dog every few days to check in. Yet it is his vision on the wall, in a mural that is to this day a prominent Surrealist attraction in Knokke.
Over the course of his career, Magritte aspired to create work for the public. Through his work as a painter, illustrator, and commercial artist, his art had a “public” presence in the poetry publications he illustrated or perfume advertisements he designed. It was not until the 1950s, when Magritte began receiving commissions for theaters, museums, casinos, and other buildings, that he was able to produce art at a grand, immersive scale.
Mural commissions allowed him to envision the ideas from his canvases at larger-than-life scale, imprinting them on the walls and ceilings of buildings around Belgium, his home country. In this, the largest such commission, Magritte imagined a panorama showing one continuous environment: a magical place called The Enchanted Domain.
Five of the eight oil paintings that served as the models for this series will be on display at SFMOMA as part of a re-examination of how this immersive space resonates with other images developed throughout his career. By focusing on his works of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, René Magritte: The Fifth Season draws attention to the set of Surrealist symbols Magritte perfected and used again and again. Nowhere is this focus more apparent than in the landscape of Surreal creations in The Enchanted Domain which includes all of the artist’s most popular motifs in one newly-imagined universe.
Magritte believed that the canvas models he provided were sufficient to realize his vision and as such they merit their own consideration. These small oil canvases, painted at 1:6 ⅓ scale reveal the precise texture of the painter’s hand, manifest his imagination, and allow us to examine the attention he gives to each figure up close.
This impossible landscape was commissioned for Gustave Nellens, the casino’s owner and a Surrealist enthusiast. It allowed Magritte to experiment with the size and shape of figures he had painted elsewhere. Giant masked apples sit beside an even bigger woman, for example. Alongside the models for the mural will be other canvases that feature Magritte’s iconography from The Enchanted Domain including earlier and contemporaneous paintings where the artist also painted watery ships and pearled masks, and later variations that revisited compositions from the mural. This method of immersive presentation allows Magritte’s ideas and images to circulate in the gallery — as they did from his canvases into his mural — as if alive and moving of their own accord.
In an interview at the time the casino opened, Magritte described his unconventional mural-making philosophy: “It is assumed that if the painter is used to decorate the interior of a church, a barracks, a casino, or a station, he must present subjects directly inspired by the rationale and the purpose of these interiors. That is not my view.” There would be no gambling scenes on the casino’s walls. Instead, Magritte created his version of an “enchanted domain,” a land of sky and desert and abstract geometric patterns that revealed his imagination.
In addition to reusing images from his earlier career, he also explored ideas that resonated with his broader artistic interests. For instance, Magritte earlier explored the idea of frames within frames, while in the casino, he produces a scene that tries to resist frames entirely, creating a world that seems to live beyond the wall.
Similarly, Magritte often emphasized the artificiality of painting whether in his works on canvas or his murals, as when he painted a blue, cloudy sky on the ceiling of a theater. This trick effect draws attention to the ceiling but also makes it appear to dissolve into the outside world. A similar disjunction in The Enchanted Domain, between the brick and mortar buildings and the 360 degree window to a fantasyland, lends itself to an immersive Surreal experience.
While researching this exhibition, Associate Curator Caitlin Haskell had the pleasure of seeing the mural in situ. But no one has seen the original oil paintings together in over 20 years; they were always owned as a group, first by Nellens and his family, and then by a series of private collectors. In 1998, the set was broken up and sold as individual works. Ever since they have resided separately.
SFMOMA is fortunate to be presenting several panels together, allowing us to approximate the feeling of a continuous mural. As a 360-degree artwork, the mural itself, of course, can never be seen all at once. But these models, which are hung on a curved surface, give us at least a glimpse, as if looking directly into the world that would wrap around our field of vision.
This gallery presentation will be one of several immersive exhibition rooms in René Magritte: The Fifth Season which will showcase other series of works and an interactive, interpretive space as well. This mode of presentation is true to Magritte the public artist, who played with the perception of space and framing in his canvases, and who always sought to create paintings that explored and expanded reality.