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“ To be a Surrealist means barring from your mind all the remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been”
~ Renè Magritte

       René Magritte, the Belgian artist and famous Surrealist, has constantly surprised the world with his artworks. He would use common objects in surprisingly unexpected ways to “make the most everyday objects shriek aloud”, mislabelling them in ways that make the observer question what he saw. With his representation of pipes, bowling hats, green apples and clouds, he created an unorthodox reality that made mundane objects look unfamiliar and disturbing. He made the familiar look new and strange in his perception of reality, in the way he saw it . He created ‘Magic Realism.’

In a series of paintings, each titled ‘L’empire des Lumières’ or ‘The Empire of Light’, René Magritte created depictions of the same nocturnal scene, a dark, tree-lined street with houses, lit by one lonely streetlight and a sunlit sky. The composition of the painting is incredibly simple except that the scene depicts a paradox of night and day in the same frame. Margitte said of the work, “The conception of a picture, that is, the idea, is not visible in the picture: an idea cannot be seen with the eyes. What is represented in a picture is what is visible to the eyes, it is the thing or things that must have been ideated. Thus, what is represented in the picture ‘The Empire of Light’ is the things I ideated.”
Several of these paintings exist, all of which are slightly different from each other. One painting is housed in New York, in the Museum of Modern Art, another in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and the third in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
The first version painted in 1949 was owned by Nelson Rockefeller, who later gave it to his secretary. A few years later, Dominique and Jean de Menil, a team of French American art collectors commissioned a version of ‘Empire of Light’ from Magritte in 1952. This was to replace a work that the Menils had already acquired themselves and gifted to the Museum of Modern Art New York. This third version is now one of the most iconic works in the museum’s collection.

Magritte had already completed a few versions by 1953 but the version he created for the retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1954 was the most desired. Though he painted four versions of the same painting that year, they were not a planned series, rather an accidental market demand.
Magritte realized that he had promised the same work to three potential buyers but sold the displayed version to Peggy Guggenheim. So as not to disappoint the other three buyers, he ended up making three versions of the same scene for each of them, one for the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, the other for his dealer, and the third, a collector.
This was not where it ended though and he continued exploring the same theme for years after, with different variants. Magritte created this image over 20 times in his career, 17 times in oil and 7 times in gouache, and in slightly different sizes, playing around with the elements but always with the same paradoxical night and day.
Barnet Hodes, a Chicago-based lawyer, who accumulated many of Magritte’s works, owned versions of Empire of Light in both gouache and oil.
With so many versions of the same work and the same scene depicted over and over again, one might think that the works created in his earlier years would be more valuable than the later ones, but that is not so. Magritte thought he actually reached his peak on this subject a decade after he created the original. The haunting visual appeal of the work together with the individual identity of each work despite its sameness, still commands an enviable price in the art circles.
In fact, two of the most expensive paintings sold at an auction by Magritte commanded an enviable price- the 1949 version belonging to Rockefeller was sold for USD 20,562,500 in the year 2017 and the one acquired by Dominique de Menil for USD 12,659,500 a decade and a half earlier.
One can clearly see how important this series was in Magritte’s career. So it comes as a surprise at how rarely the images are exhibited together. Until now, there have only ever been three oils in the same place at the same time and that too fifty years ago. In René Magritte: The Fifth Season, there will be six oil paintings and one gouache hung together in one gallery for the first time. Different sizes, horizontal and vertical compositions, a different house, different colors all together in a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

From the minute you set your eyes on it, you are sucked into the painting- transformed from the myriad mediocrity of your surroundings to a glow of an unreal twilight zone.
Magritte depicts a quiet residential street, with a house and a single street lamp glowing and light shining through empty windows. This quiet nocturnal scene sees above it, a luminescent blue daytime sky encrusted with fluffy white clouds, shocking the viewer with an impossible clash of night and day- suddenly lifting the mundane scene into something extraordinary.
The observer is surprised. And confused.
This dichotomy of day and night, of light and dark, throws the observer completely off balance and creates a sense of mystery, fear even when viewed for the first time. In fact, this scene was also borrowed in the iconic film still, The Exorcist, which is not surprising considering the film-poster effect that Magritte’s works had. It also inspired the artwork for the cover of Jackson Browne’s 1974 album, Late for the Sky.
As you stare at the work, eerie stillness envelopes you- the cold street devoid of any humanness, a scene devoid of any soul ( atypicality of the surreal movement). Some parts of the house appear to be painted in the daytime as they catch the brightness of the sky..and yet, their darkness is enhanced by the dim iridescent light of the streetlight. The sky, though bright in its hues, has a coldness to it, set off by the sinister outlines of the house and the dark green foliage. You want to walk away but the dichotomy of this unfamiliar reality grips you and holds you tight. The unsettling light of the sky leaves you confused and wondering if this is supposed to be a dream, challenging our notions of being awake.
It haunts you and imprisons you.

And so you stand for a while longer.

And you let it envelop you and take over your being until the coldness begins to leave you…
and the warm lights in the windows of the house, beckon you with their warmth and a promise of comfort and security
and the loneliness that you felt looking at the empty street, now begins to feel like tranquility
and the eeriness, now a quiet meditation.

The Empire of Light draws us into a world that is unrealistic and not normal and forces us to break down our perceptions and look at the scene again and again until we accept it. On a visual level, it plays with our mind, telling us that day and night cannot exist together. Once we move past the preconceived realities and the conditioning that binds us, we find ourselves embracing the unnaturally of the elements he paints, and even finding comfort and peace in the same scene. He challenges our sense of reality and pushes us out of our myopic vision to an expanded view of what can be.
Like all surrealist paintings, this one is also a mirror of the subconscious mind. Of the light and dark within you. To acknowledge that light and darkness exist within all of us. What you fear and what you choose to embrace is a choice you make. After all, doesn’t light come out of the darkness? And the morning after the night?
In his 1956 Guggenheim Prize speech, Magritte said about this work, “I find the evocation of night and day is endowed with the power to surprise and enchant us. I call this power, poetry.”

So when you finally do walk away from ‘The Empire of Light’, that’s what you carry within you.
The Poetry…

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