Ask me to name my favorite song, film or novel and there’s simply no way I can answer. I’ll stumble around in my brain trying to decide whether it’s Burma Shave or Minnie the Moocher, Wings of Desire or Million Dollar Legs, Invisible Cities or The Wind in the Willows or Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ask me my favorite painting though and I have an immediate answer: René Magritte’s L’Empire des Lumières (1954).
Magritte began as a lackluster impressionist and moved into surrealism after World War I. His stance then was in line with André Breton, who wrote in the Manifesto of Surrealism, “I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams. It is because man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all the plaything of his memory, and in its normal state memory takes pleasure in weakly retracing for him the circumstances of the dream, in stripping it of any real importance, and in dismissing the only determinant from the point where he thinks he has left it a few hours before: this firm hope, this concern. He is under the impression of continuing something that is worthwhile. Thus the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night.”
There’s a combative aspect to Magritte’s early surrealism, a forcing of anamorphosis that, to my way of thinking, can lack subtlety overall and in some cases approaches Dalí in terms of thumping you over the head with all the wacky. Some of his work in the late 1920s, during his time in Paris, is disturbing and effective in giving the viewer no choice but to feel unbalanced. But it is difficult, in this period, for the viewer to be much more than a viewer. It’s like seeing a dream but not like dreaming. There’s seldom room for the observer to enter into the piece and let it unfold and expand in the mind the way a dream does. There are notable exceptions in that period, such as Les Amants, that indicate he’d begun to move in a new direction, but then there’s The Acrobat’s Exercises, which is practically a Dalí pastiche.
His work in the 1930s is much richer, to my way of thinking, much more conducive to feeling transported to a state parallel to dreaming. There’s a meditative and philosophical motion to it, an invitation to the viewer rather than a bludgeoning. In 1948 he painted God’s Salon, a night scene and study of light and color in some ways similar to a film negative.
A few years later he painted the 1952 version of L’Empire des Lumières, something like a positive version of God’s Salon. It’s a calm and pretty piece but not terribly interesting. 1954, however, he revisited the scene, this time with a tall tree pushing up from the bottom to the top, undoing the bisection of the 1952 version.
There it is: my favorite painting ever. Why? Because it’s night and day at once, perfectly subtle, the surrealism barely whispering, the intersection of dreaming and waking Breton aspired for at last, realized with grace. There are moments of natural surrealism when the sun is going down and the sky is still lit and the street is darkening. In such instances we feel the shift of time. L’Empire des Lumières takes that moment and gently stretches either side ever so slightly, the result is impossible and effortless and natural time travel.
The painting has become, for me, an ideal. I seek, in poetry, novels, music and other arts, examples of gentle perspective adjustment, brought about with lightness and confident style, as with this painting. When I read what I consider truly exceptional speculative fiction, such as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” or Ovid’s Metamorphosis, this feeling permeates the experience. It’s Borges writing of “the unanimous night.” It’s not Avatar splashing huge and noisy all over, but rather the human-armed candelabras in La Belle et La Bete. It is expansive, participatory wonder and philosophy, with my mind playing a note that harmonizes with the artist and redefines the light and the shadows wherever I look next.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.