Dear Mademoiselle Suzi
My latest picture began with the question--how to show a glass of water in a picture in some way that would not be insignificant? Neither whimsical, nor arbitrary, nor feeble--but let's say it: with genius? (false modesty apart)--I began by drawing lots of glasses of water: each with a mark on the glass: after the 100th or 150th drawing this mark broadened out: and took the form of an umbrella: then the umbrella was placed in the glass: and finally below the glass.
This is the exact solution of the initial question--How to paint a glass of water with genius? Then I thought that Hegel (another genius) would have greatly appreciated this object, which has two opposite functions--at one and the same time not wanting water (rejecting it) and wanting it (containing water). He would have been charmed, I think, or amused (as if on holiday) and I call the picture: 'Hegel's holiday'.
(quoted in David Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-1967, London, 1993, vol. III, p. 288.)
René Magritte's early art lessons took place at the age of twelve in a classroom above a candy store in Châtelet. One of his first tasks was decorating umbrella stands, a premonition perhaps of the central role the motif of an umbrella was to play throughout his subsequent career. It could also have been an augur of the relationship the artist was to have to the Surrealist movement whose nineteenth-century hero, the Comte de Lautréamont, notoriously declared that he wished to create things "as beautiful as... the fortuitous encounter upon an operating-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." Moreover, alongside the bowler hat, the umbrella is the twentieth-century male bourgeois attribute ne plus ultra. Both of course were favorite subjects for Magritte who, after his retreat to Belgium following his collaboration with the Surrealists in Paris, lived a life of stockbroker-like respectability whilst actively engaged in an artistic campaign to undermine convention.
The present painting, Les vacances de Hegel, or Hegel's Holidays, surely counts among the most arresting, emblematic paintings of Magritte's work from the 1950s. It was the first of two treatments of the same subject with the second work executed the following year (Sylvester, no. 895; fig. 3). Despite its having been housed within a discreet European collection for the past thirty years, and having been exhibited only once during that period, the present work has been frequently illustrated in the Magritte literature and is an image of wide renown. In common with other major pictures of the 1950s, such as La voix active (Sylvester, no. 758; fig. 4) and Le bon exemple (Portrait de Alexandre Iolas) (Sylvester, no. 793; fig. 5), an unmodulated background of terracotta surrounds the principal motif. Thus isolated, the depicted object seems magnified in itself and amplified in significance, focusing the viewer's attention further on the image and its relation to its title. The association of word and image was always of paramount importance to Magritte.
A notable and unusual feature with regard to the present painting is the correspondence from Magritte surrounding its creation, offering a wonderful view into his arrival at its subject matter. In the letter quoted above addressed to Suzi Gablik, one of the artist's most insightful biographers, as well as in a letter written a few days later to his friend Maurice Rapin, Magritte takes one through both the formal, quasi-accidental process through which the final composition emerged, together with its conceptual underpinning. What also shines through, as ever, is the artist's playful wit: who but he would consider the thought of the august Hegel, a brooding giant of Prussian philosophy, having fun on vacation?
Like his artistic hero Giorgio de Chirico, Magritte was well read and took a Modernist delight in the combination of the unpredictable and the incongruous. As Suzi Gablik has written, both men "fully embraced Hegel's notion that the skillful copying of nature is a 'superfluous labor' and a 'presumptuous sport,' and not the true function of art at all. Hegel had put forward the view that reality for man must traverse the medium of perception and ideas, which alone confers permanence on a work of art, wedding it to 'the most universal intuitions respecting the world': 'In this process, it is quite indifferent whether attention is claimed by immediate external reality, or whether this effect is produced by another means--that is, by images, symbols, and ideas, containing or representing the content of reality. Man can frame to himself ideas of things that are not actual as though they were actual'" (op. cit., p. 66).
The importance that Magritte attached to the title of a painting sometimes led him to seek the advice of friends. In the case of the present work it was the poet Louis Scutenaire, his longtime friend, who suggested the idea of Les vacances de Hegel. In a letter from November 1958, Magritte explains to his American dealer Alexandre Iolas his thought processes around the title of the work, after having considered an alternative: "For the picture with the umbrella and the glass of water, I have reverted to the first title--Hegel's holiday and not 'The philosopher's holiday'--The first title: 'Hegel's holiday' on second thoughts and after discussion was thought to be preferable--I had doubts because of a way of looking at things (like the Nazis) who credit Hegel with tastes corresponding to their tastes for gas-chambers, stupid racialist ideas and cannon-fire. This way of looking at things mustn't be taken into account at all, that would be to side with the brutes and to relinquish another conception of life which gives way to the more beautiful and the good. Hegel wrote enough fine and good things for those things to be remembered in the first place, the remainder, if there is a remainder, can be left to those people with a taste for the mean and the ugly" (Sylvester, op. cit., p. 289).
Following the Hegelian trope of the tripartite nature of history--the thesis, followed by antithesis, resulting in synthesis--Suzi Gablik addresses the mutable nature of Magritte's art. "Magritte never dealt with single, static identities. His images incorporate a dialectical process, based on paradox, which corresponds to the unstable, and therefore indefinable, nature of the universe. Thesis and antithesis are selected in such a way as to produce a synthesis which involves a contradiction and actively suggests the paradoxical matrix from which all experience springs. The fundamental dynamism of Magritte's images depends on an exploitation of the free field of possibilities, or potentialities, which lies outside the range of what are usually considered 'normal' situations. The fact that a possibility is not a reality means only that the circumstances which are affecting it at a given moment prevent it from being so. If, however, the possibility is freed from its bonds and allowed to develop, a utopian idea is likely to emerge. In Magritte, the synthesis through paradox which brings conflicting possibilities into a unified focus is intended to suggest the ambivalent nature of reality itself" (op. cit., pp. 109-110).
(fig. 1) Letter to Suzi Gablik, 19 May 1958. Private collection.
(fig. 2) Sheet of studies for the work. Whereabouts unknown.
(fig. 3) René Magritte, Les vacances de Hegel, 1959. Private collection.
(fig. 4) René Magritte, La voix active, 1951. St. Louis Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.
(fig. 5) René Magritte, Le bon exemple (Portrait de Alexandre Iola), 1953. Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paris.