Rene Magritte and Paul Eluard: An International and Interartistic Dialogue

Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative 
Issue 13.
The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924
René Magritte and Paul Éluard: An International and Interartistic Dialogue  
Author: Ainsley Brown
Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): Surrealism was a movement of conversations: between artists, between the arts, between countries. During the 1930s, the Parisian Surrealists intentionally sought to establish international dialogues and aimed to broaden the scope of their activity. The dialogue between the Parisian and the Belgian Surrealists was one of the primary outlets for the explosion of international exchange at this time. It is against the historical backdrop of the intense conversation between Brussels and Paris that I will explore the dialogue between two iconic figures of Surrealism: the Belgian painter René Magritte and the French poet Paul Éluard. Although the dialogue between the poet and the painter manifested itself in many ways during the 1930s and 1940s, I am interested in exploring one particular exchange: the reciprocal portraits that Magritte and Éluard realised of each other in 1935 and 1936. Magritte drew a portrait of Éluard called "La Magie blanche" in 1936, after Éluard had written the poem "René Magritte" which appeared in Les Cahiers d'art in 1935. I will examine the significance of this conversation through portraiture with respect to the Franco-Belgian rapport during the 1930s but also in the context of the interartistic dialogues (text/image, poetry/painting) which were abundant at the time.

The "Forgotten Surrealists" 
Much of the critical literature on Surrealism is dominated by the Parisian group. While this concentration is in part justified - Paris was, after all, the hub of interwar Surrealist activity - recent scholarship has begun to pay more attention to alternative sites of development such as Belgium, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada and the United States, among others. More than isolated entities, the international groups were engaged in dynamic conversations and it is by looking at these 'national variants' in relation to each another that their specificity comes into focus. Far from a methodology that would regard all of the other Surrealisms as subordinate offshoots of the Parisian group, this approach privileges their conversations and reciprocal influences within the larger international community. By focussing on the exchanges between the national Surrealisms, we can circumvent a hierarchical approach which would posit a Centre and its Margins, in this case the 'Parisian group' and its international Others. As notes Christian Bussy, internationalism is an intrinsic quality of Surrealism: "the notion of Surrealism implies and claims an international and timeless character [1] " (Bussy 29, my translation). One way to fully recognize this 'implicit' internationalism is to direct critical attention towards the dialogues between the international players of Surrealism in order to listen more closely to their "forgotten conversations".

Surrealism was a movement of conversations: between artists, between the arts, between countries. International and interartistic dialogues occupy a central place in its history. In effect, the 'conversational' dynamic of Surrealism flourished as a result of the diversity that came to characterize the group. Throughout the 1920s Paris attracted artists from all around the world: Max Ernst arrived from Germany, Dali and Miró from Spain, Magritte and Mesens from Belgium and Man Ray from the United States. For these créateurs, it was impossible to resist the magnetic pull of the capital where 'anything goes' was l'ordre du jour and artistic freedom was as vital as a human right. However, if the 1920s was a decade of regrouping and 'coming together', it was during the 1930s that Surrealism explored its potential for international exchange. This decade saw a number of international exhibitions: London was the site of the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 and Paris hosted the Exposition internationale du surréalisme in 1938. With regard to the expansion of Belgian Surrealism, the 1930s were significant years: they marked the end of the collective activity of the group - the revue Variétés disappeared in 1934 - as well as the beginning of more frequent and sustained international exchanges with France (Vovelle 1972: 28-30).

In the mid-1930s, the Belgians were high on the list of contacts of the Parisian group. José Vovelle states that, "[d]uring the years 1934-1935, Surrealism intentionally multiplied international contacts and it is normal that it would be in Belgium that we would find the first manifestations [2]" (Vovelle 1972: 29, my translation). It is against this historical backdrop of intense conversation between Brussels and Paris that I will explore the dialogue between two iconic figures of Surrealism: René Magritte and Paul Éluard. Although the dialogue between the painter and the poet developed through many outlets during the 1930s and 1940s, I am interested in exploring one particular exchange - the reciprocal portraits that Magritte and Éluard realised of each other in 1935 and 1936. The fact that they interact through an exchange of mirror images is typical of a decade which saw the proliferation of such crossings, be they between national Surrealisms or between the arts. Can their dialogue through portraiture serve as an entry into the study of the Franco-Belgian relationship in the 1930s? What can it reveal about the connections between the two Surrealist groups?

René Magritte: A Belgian Surrealist Remembered 
Among the "forgotten surrealists" of the Brussels group, René Magritte is an exception due to the abundant critical attention that his painting has attracted. His pictorial ouvre has been an object of fascination of art historians for decades and has recently drawn the attention of literary scholars and interdisciplinary adventurers alike. The diversity in the body of criticism on Magritte's ouvre is a testament to the painter's own desire to situate his practice at the intersection of different discourses. His frequent transgressions of artistic and formal boundaries became an integral and defining feature of his work.

Magritte's aspirations move 'beyond painting' brought him closer to the other art . Whether it was poetry, linguistic enigmas or words themselves, textual representation was a constant source of fascination and delight for this painter who developed his aesthetics around the notion of 'visible poetry'. His enthralment with the poetic and the literary was not only an ideological penchant, since Magritte's entourage - the Brussels group - was composed almost entirely of " gens de plumes " and " littéraires " (Meuris 215). Indeed, poetry influenced many (if not all) aspects of Magritte's ouvre: from the nebulous notion of the "poetic effect" to his concrete experimentations with the signifying power of words, the painter never ceased to find stimulation in the other art . Can Magritte's own fascination with poetry and language explain the attention that poets and writers have, in turn, paid to his work? For besides Éluard, other littéraires have found inspiration in his enigmatic visions. In the late 1930s, David Gascoyne, the British Surrealist and author of A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) wrote the poem 'The Very Image' which he dedicated to the painter. More recently, Henri Michaux evoked a series of Magrittean scenes through verse in En rêvant à partir de peintures énigmatiques (1964) and Alain Robbe-Grillet used the painter's imagery as a point of narrative departure in La Belle captive (1975). Therefore, Magritte's dialogue with Éluard is not an isolated instance but part of a much larger phenomenon, a widespread preoccupation with 'poetry', words and language. Perceiving himself as a philosopher rather than as a painter, as a thinker inspired by the "poetry" and the "mystery" of the everyday, Magritte's approach to painting has made him an icon of the interartistic exchanges characteristic of the interwar avant-garde and an enfant chéri of contemporary interdisciplinary studies.

A "Forgotten Conversation" 
Within the context of this reflection on the "forgotten surrealists" of the Brussels group, I will present the "forgotten conversation" between René Magritte and Paul Éluard. Engaged in this noteworthy exchange are two key figures of the interwar avant-garde: one, an iconic figure in Belgian Surrealism, the other, a prominent poet in the Parisian circle. Due to the notoriety of the two players and their integral roles within their respective groups, their dialogue seems poised to reveal broader Surrealist trends, specifically with respect to the network between the Belgian and the French groups. Is this international and interartistic exchange through portraiture emblematic of larger trends in interwar Surrealism? What was Magritte's influence on the Parisian group? What did the Belgian Surrealists think about Éluard ? Ultimately, what emerges through this international and interartistic conversation is that both the painter and the poet sought to maintain contact with the Other, whether it was the other artist or the other art. Both look to the Other (art) in order to attain a more penetrating perspective on their own practice and a clearer view of their artistic identity. Artistic other or alter ego ? Through this exploration of their neglected conversation, I aim to cast light on the details of their relationship and situate it in l'air du temps of 1930s Surrealism.

René Magritte and Paul Éluard 
Spanning nearly two decades (1927-1948), the fragments of the dialogue between Magritte and Éluard adopted diverse forms. Whether it was a moment in time, a juxtaposition in a journal, an act of portraiture or the illustration of a book, these convergences all attest to some sort of kinship between the two. Profoundly preoccupied with the other art, this painter of words and "poet of images" found inspiration in the dialogue between painting and poetry and in illuminating exchanges with other artists (Viatte 11). Magritte was fascinated both by the idea and by the object of poetry: his conception of it extended from the vague to the concrete, from poetry as a sentiment to poetry as a sequence of words. As for Éluard, painting was a constant source of inspiration in his poetic practice. This appreciation manifested itself in the numerous 'poems for the painters' that he wrote, as well as in his passionate friendships with the visual artists.

Magritte's initial attraction to Éluard was based on a deep sense of identification, enchantment and affinity. He was captivated by a single line of poetry that appeared in Au défaut du silence, the prose poem published in 1925 in which Éluard expresses a passionate and excruciating love for Gala, his wife and muse. In its first edition, the poem was accompanied by illustrations by Max Ernst, an interartistic configuration that echoes the tumultuous ménage-à-trois that was occurring in the Éluard home in Eaubonne. It is in this text that we find the verse that so captivated Magritte: "The darkest eyes enclose the lightest [3]" (Éluard 1924: 166). Something in this solitary verse struck the painter - he was enchanted by the paradox it presented and felt drawn to its simple mystery. In his writings, he makes reference to this line in a conference and in interviews, calling on it to express the hidden mystery so central to his practice (Magritte 96, 536, 569). At a loss for words, he borrows Éluard's. In fact, these allusions in his writing are particularly significant given the fact that Magritte does not otherwise cite specific poetic or literary excerpts. In this perspective, Éluard's verse has a weighty role in his aesthetic reflection - André Blavier confirms that "it is the verse [.] that affected Magritte among all others [4]" (Magritte 99, my translation) and Jean Charles Gateau even goes so far as to propose that "in Éluard's monostich, he found the poetic representation of his own philosophy [5]" (Gateau 240, my translation). In an interview with Jan Walravens in 1962, Magritte qualified his attachment to this particular verse, describing it as an example of the way in which Éluard "was able to evoke reality not separated from its mystery [6] " (Magritte 536, my translation). Here, although the painter is describing a characteristic he appreciates in the poet's ouvre, he is also evoking a key feature of his own painting: the union of reality and mystery which he claims to esteem in Éluard's poetry is also a central facet of his own practice.

While this first intersection between Magritte and Éluard is relatively abstract, more concrete intersections between the painter and the poet would follow as of 1927 when Magritte went to live near Paris in Perreux-sur-Marne. Like many other artists, he found the magnetism of the city hard to resist. With his new proximity to the Parisian Surrealists, Magritte could participate more regularly in their activities. Well-received in the group, he cultivated friendships with a number of the French poets such as Aragon, Péret and Éluard. During this Parisian period, Magritte produced the majority of the word paintings which comprise his "linguistic period" (Roque 220). Extensively commented by contemporary critics, these paintings trouble the relationship between the object and the sign and challenge naturalised semantic associations responsible for shaping our perception of the world. For Vovelle, Magritte's semiotic experimentation and strong interest in words can be likened to the work of the Parisian poets. Pointing to a potential link between the painter's "linguistic period" and his geographical proximity to the French writers, she suggests that his preoccupation with textual signification was close to their interests at the time (Vovelle 1972: 132-133). Thus, while Magritte's years in Paris provided him with the opportunity to mix with the poets, it can be argued that they also resulted in a convergence in their creative and intellectual pursuits. As such, when Magritte returned to Brussels in 1930, it would not be the end of his participation in French activities: he had made an imprint on the Parisian group and they had made their mark on him.

Perspectives on the Other (art): Magritte and Éluard's "(Self-)Portraits" 
One of the traces of the lasting effect of the Parisian sojourn is the magnetic force which attracted Magritte and Éluard to one another throughout the 1930s and the 1940s. Their mutual enchantment is particularly interesting in the context of the international and interartistic exchanges which characterised 1930s Surrealism. For, as affirms Vovelle, these kinds of "ambiguous influences in the form of exchanges [.] translate a reciprocal curiosity between artists and [.] have their maximum intensity in the 1930s which mark the highest point of productiveness for Surrealism in its entirety [7] " (Vovelle 1972: 95, my translation). In the literature on Magritte's Parisian period, critics have often singled out his friendship with Éluard, distinguishing it as one of his more resonant relationships. Furthermore, the import of their rapport seems to be confirmed by the fact that the poet and the painter realised portraits of each other between 1935 and 1936. In 1935, Paul Éluard wrote a poem entitled "René Magritte" which first appeared in Les Cahiers d'art, appearing on the same page as Magritte's critical text, "Le Fil d'Ariane" and opposite two of his paintings. The following year, it was included in the collection, Les Yeux fertiles and would be used in a number of Magritte's exhibition catalogues. A pictorial 'reply' to this poetic homage would follow in 1936, when Magritte drew a portrait of Paul Éluard, La Magie blanche, which makes only very rare appearances in catalogues of his paintings. Is this drawing a response to Éluard's poetic portrait or an isolated expression of admiration for the poet? Given that the mid-1930s was a time of intense dialogue between Belgian and French Surrealism (Vovelle 1972: 28-30), can the reciprocal portraiture between the painter and the poet be seen as illustrative of broader tendencies in international Surrealism?

Why do Magritte and Éluard converse through portraiture? Considering the revolutionary use of the portrait by avant-garde painters and poets - we need only recall Francis Picabia's Dada portraits, Max Ernst's auto-representations through collage or Claude Cahun's rebellious photomontages to recognize the subversive potential of the genre - their choice of this form is fascinating. According to Elza Adamowicz, the Surrealists used the portrait to vehicle their philosophy on the instability of identity. Arguing that " [i]n the Surrealist quest for identity or the 'soluble I', the individual often merges with the anonymous, where the self as the locus of a coherent identity is displaced or dissolved in the other", Adamowicz defines the "Surrealist (Self-)Portrait" as the concretisation of the epistemological reflections which dominated at the time (Adamowicz 41). Since the potential for fixing or securing an identity (in an image or in a text) is contrary to the "nomadic" identities that the Surrealists prized, many of their portraits accentuate the plurality of identity rather than representing a unified self. Does this privileging of mobile, open and shifting identities have any bearing on the relationship between national Surrealisms?

Engaging in a complex dynamic of mirroring, Magritte and Éluard each reflect an image of the Other (art) before turning the mirror back onto themselves. In this perspective, La Magie blanche and "René Magritte" are both portraits and self-portraits, the image of the Other fuses seamlessly with a reflection of the Self. If the painter and the poet use portraiture to reflect on the boundaries of their artistic identities, do their national identities figure into this problematic? Considering that the portraits in question seek to erase the boundaries between the Self and the Other, can they be seen as representative of any broader trends in Franco-Belgian relations in the 1930s?

La Magie blanche, René Magritte (1936) 
In 1936, René Magritte drew a portrait of Paul Éluard. While this portrait is largely absent from catalogues of the painter's ouvre, the image is extremely significant with respect to the interartistic conversation between the painter and the poet. Also, while Paul Éluard wrote numerous poems for painters during his career, Magritte did not have a particular predilection for the representation of poets. Since the Éluard portrait does not belong to a larger group of poet portraits, its existence is all the more intriguing. Compared to many of his other portraits, Magritte's depiction of Éluard is quite traditional. In portraits such as Paul Nougé (1927), Gustave van Hecke (1927) or Georgette (1935), Magritte introduces recognizable figures into paranormal environments. It is the startling juxtaposition of the supernatural and the accurate or hyper-real (with respect to the depiction of the portrait subject) that gives the Magrittean portrait its specific allure. However, the 'magic" of La Magie blanche is subtle to the point of being nonexistent. Magritte's use of veiled magic to represent Éluard recalls the fact that he claimed to admire Éluard's ability to recognize "reality not separated from its mystery [8]" (Magritte 536, my translation).

Pencil in hand, seated demurely next to a naked female torso, the poet is represented in the act of writing. His physique is portrayed with clarity and detail: the majestic forehead, distinctive hairline and lightly pursed lips can belong to none other than Paul Éluard. While the precision in the representation of the poet is notable, such accuracy or 'correctness' is coupled with a lingering sense of "impossibility" with regard to the scenario envisaged. Éluard is writing directly onto the skin of the abdomen of the woman, as if the stroke of his pencil were capable of breathing life into her. The boundaries between the two bodies are difficult to distinguish; the poet and the woman appear to fuse seamlessly into each other. Éluard's physical positioning in relation to the naked torso is loaded with erotic signification: the poet's hand and forearm hide her vaginal area and along with the outstretched pencil they form a phallic trio which projects onto her body. Establishing a visual link between poetry and sex, Magritte depicts poetic writing as an erotic exploit; it is presented as the sexual act itself, capable of creating and giving life to new forms.

One of the intriguing features of La Magie blanche is that it can be read simultaneously as a portrait of Éluard and as a self-portrait of Magritte. Boundaries between the Self and the Other are blurred and the (con)fusion of Magritte and Éluard ensues. The 'synthesis' between the painter and the poet is further intensified by the fact that La Magie blanche bears a strong resemblance to La Tentative de l'impossible (1928), one of Magritte's rare self-portraits. In this image he represents himself in the act of 'painting Georgette': a (failed) fantasy of bringing the woman to life through art which, aside from its reference to the Pygmalion myth, is echoed in his portrait of Éluard almost a decade later. For in La Magie blanche, Magritte represents Éluard as he had represented himself in La Tentative de l'impossible . In his self-portrait, Magritte's brushstroke - like the stroke of Éluard's pencil - attempts to give life to the female form. While this is the male Surrealist fantasy par excellence , such efforts can only prove futile: textual and pictorial significations are insufficient and the woman remains insaisissable . Nonetheless, the parallel between La Magie blanche and La Tentative de l'impossible is intriguing, especially in the context of this exploration of the dialogue between Self and Other, poetry and painting, Belgian and French Surrealism. Is Magritte's portrait of Éluard the displaced double of his own self-portrait from 1928? This delayed parallel between the two portraits is not inconceivable, especially since in La Magie blanche, Magritte privileges the representation of the common ground he shares with Éluard rather than focussing on the specificity or the distance that separates them. Placing the accent on the similarities between their two practices, Magritte makes the portrait a space of dialogue between Éluardian poetics and his own aesthetics.

"René Magritte", Paul Éluard (1935) 
On the other side of the looking glass we find Éluard's poetic portrait of Magritte, "René Magritte", which belongs to a larger group of his poems for painters. In these poems - which normally bear the name of the painter as their title - Éluard does not seek to 'represent' the painter as such but seeks to write a text parallel to their pictorial practice [9]. Making their first appearance in his collection Capitale de la douleur (1926), such poetic tributes to the visual arts appeared throughout his ouvre and attest to the vital role of painting in his poetry. Even when external influences changed drastically - most notably when Éluard became involved in the French resistance in the 1940s - his love of painting persisted and evolved alongside his new political engagement.

If "René Magritte" is ostensibly a poem about the painter, it is also a poem about the conversations between a poet and a painter, about the correspondences between Magritte's painting and Éluard's poetry. A space of exchanges and dialogue, the portrait is a representation of the points of convergence between the poet and the painter, between the Self and its artistic Other. Like in Magritte's drawing La Magie blanche, "René Magritte" is both a projection of the Other (Magritte's painting) and a deeper reflection on the Self (Éluard's poetry). Puzzlingly, Éluard's poem "René Magritte" has not been analysed alongside the portrait that Magritte drew of him the following year. As such, the links between the two portraits remain shrouded in mystery. Intentional response or pure coincidence? Act of reciprocation or act of admiration? Ultimately, the relationship between the two portraits is enticing and seems to offer new perspectives on the relationship between the national Surrealisms and the networks that were established.

Surrealist Dialogues 
The conversation between Magritte and Éluard does not end with their exchange of portraits in the 1930s. In the 1940s, Magritte participated in two illustrated editions of Éluard's poetry: he illustrated La Moralité du sommeil (1941) as well as the 1946 re-edition of Les Nécessités de la vie et les consequences des rêves (1922) published by Marcel Marien's l'Aiguille aimantée. It is interesting to note that although Magritte participated in numerous collaborations with the Belgian poets throughout the years, Éluard was the only French Surrealist whose work he illustrated. For a painter so intrigued by poetic expression and by the possibilities of interartistic exchange, this " fidelity" to Éluard is striking. As for Éluard, he wrote a second poem for Magritte, "À René Magritte", which appeared in his collection Voir in 1948. He inscribed Magritte's copy with the dedication " to René Magritte / who defends words with images" ( Paul Éluard et ses amis peintres 143, my translation).

There are many other sites of intersection between Éluard and Magritte, spaces of convergence between two practices, two perspectives and two arts. For example, the exhibition poster for Magritte's first solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1936 is one of these conversational spaces. On this poster, Magritte's painting is juxtaposed with Éluard's poem "René Magritte" (translated into English by Man Ray) and a critical text by Paul Nougé. While this poster is extremely relevant to the dialogue in question, it also embodies the diverse exchanges which marked the 1930s, be they intertextual, international or interartistic.

The Surrealists were enchanted by conversations: from the striking meeting of objects in a box to the random encounter of strangers on the street, the act coming together was vital to their poetics and to their way of life. From the metaphor to the collage, from the creation of hybrid forms to illustrated books, Surrealism prized unexpected associations. As such, it is not surprising that poets and the painters transgressed the boundaries between countries and between the arts or that they sought to establish connections with their interartistic and international Others. Dialogues inhabit many of the spaces of Surrealism and the multiplicity of these exchanges adds to the complexity and to the charm of studying Surrealism. The intricate network of (inter)relations provides endless material for academic exploration. For a movement which has been enormously studied over the past fifty years, some of the most fertile spaces of Surrealism that remain are those where discourses intersect, where artists meet and where arts exchange. It is these spaces of convergence - the meeting places of Surrealism - that can reveal the internal functioning of a group, the tendencies of an era and the dynamics of the avant-garde.

Footnotes 

[1] "la notion de surréalisme implique et revendique un caractère internationaliste et intempore l"

[2] "[d]ans les années 1934-1935, le surréalisme multiplie de façon concertée les contacts internationaux et il est normal que ce soit en Belgique [.] qu'on en trouve les premières manifestations "

[3] "Dans les plus sombres yeux se ferment les plus clairs"

[4] "c'est le vers [.] qui marquera Magritte entre tous"

[5] "dans ce monostiche d'Éluard, il trouvait la représentation poétique de sa propre philosophie"

[6] "était capable d'évoquer la réalité non séparée de son mystère"

[7] "influences ambiguës sous forme d'échanges [.] traduisent une curiosité réciproque entre artistes et [.] ont leur maximum d'intensité dans ces années 30 qui marquent le plus haut point de fécondité du surréalisme tout entier"

[8] "réalité non séparée de son mystère"

[9] "à René Magritte / qui défend les mots par les images"

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----------------, "Un surréaliste belge à Paris", Revue d'art, n� 12, 1971, p. 55-63. 
 
 
About the author:     
Ainsley Brown is a PhD Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University. She holds an honours B.A. from the University of Toronto and a maîtrise from the University of Montréal.


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