René Magritte, L'Ellipse (The Ellipsis), 1948
René Magritte decided twice to break with the “tactical conformism” that he had until then freely imposed upon himself: in 1942 with the period referred to as “Impressionist” or “Renoir”; and in 1947 with his vache – literally cow – period. Magritte's Impressionist period coincided with his self-distancing from official Parisian Surrealism. His manifesto Surrealism in full sunlight, which he published in 1946 with the complicity of Marcel Mariën and others, was an instrument of warfare directed against André Breton:
René Magritte, A Stroke of Luck, 1945
“We have neither the time nor the taste to play at Surrealist art, we have a huge task ahead of us, we must imagine charming objects which will awaken what is left within us of the instinct to pleasure.” It was in this polemical context that Magritte was invited to hold his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie du Faubourg in May 1948. For the occasion, over five weeks he made the seventeen oil paintings and twenty or so gouaches which, taken together, he would then call his vache period.
René Magritte, Les Profondeurs du Plaisir (The Depths of Pleasure), 1948
I love subversive humour, freckles, knees, the long hair of women, the dreams of young children at liberty, a young girl running in the street. (René Magritte)
René Magritte, Le Galet (The Pebble), 1948
In French, the term vache is used for an excessively fat woman, or a soft, lazy person. An unpleasant person is described as a peau de vache (cow-skin); amour vache (cow-love) refers to a relationship more physical than emotional. It thus treads a line between vulgarity and coarseness, and that is what characterises this set of paintings, representing a radical departure from Magritte’s neutral, detached style which had finally been accepted by Parisian Surrealist orthodoxy. Overall, the striking thing about these works is their garish tones, their exuberant, grotesque and caricatured subjects, all executed rapidly and casually in the name of a freedom from aesthetic and moral prescriptions.
Eduard Manet, Lola de Valence,1862
René Magritte, Lola de Valence, 1948
The exhibition was accompanied by a small catalogue with a preface by the poet Louis Scutenaire, bearing an evocative title (“ Les pieds dans le plat” – Putting one’s foot in it) and written in a slangy style. Moreover, Scutenaire would admit as much some years later: “The important thing was not to enchant the Parisians, but outrage them.” The triviality of the works actually wrong-foots Surrealist good taste. Both text and images are placed on a deliberately rustic and provincial register. “We’d been fed-up for a good long time deep in our forests, in our green pastures.” Traditionally, the Belgians were seen as coarse peasants by the French, including the intellectuals (in 1865 Charles Baudelaire had written his pamphlet Poor Belgium). This chauvinism, still prevalent even among Parisian Surrealists, was here returned to the sender: “We’d like to say shit politely to you, in your false language,” Scutenaire goes on to write. “Because we bumpkins, we yokels, have absolutely no manners, you realise.”
René Magritte, La Famine (Famine), 1948
James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, 1891
Magritte's vache period was a kind of sabotage of the idea of painting which to a certain extent anticipates what would be, some 30 years later, at the heart of the so-called Bad Painting which erupted across the world of Western art in the late 1970s and 1980s. In it, in fact, we find a similar way of integrating the devalued registers of popular culture (advertising, comic strips, graffiti). Scutenaire suggests that this series of paintings was to a large extent inspired by “caricatures shown by Colinet, published before 1914 in magazines for children”. It is true that one can recognise, here and there, explicit references to caricatures by the Belgian cartoonist Deladoës, or even direct borrowings of scenes from the Aventures des Pieds nickelés, the famous strip drawn by Louis Forton:
The Ellipse, depicting a hunter whose rifle appears where his nose should be, The Old Soldier (a poor, ill, veteran with five pipes and three noses), an eagle’s head topped by a fortress (Prince Charming) participate in René Magritte’s visual rhetoric. But that rhetoric is subjected to such formal anarchy, that the pleasure principle is plainly the determining factor here. In the end, these insolent works have less in common with de Chirico or Picabia, who were, at the same time, radically transforming their style by treating ironically “traditionalist” attitudes, than they do with an approach such as that of Martin Kippenberger between 1980 and 1990, undermining from within the dominant forms of the art of his time.
Martin Kippenberger, Untitled, 1982
René Magritte, The Old Soldier, 1945
Pipe and passeport of René Magritte and Georgette Magritte-Berger
The exhibition at the Galerie du Faubourg enjoyed no commercial success. But the target had been hit. The Parisian Surrealists felt they were being aimed at, and were duly offended. The période vache could not subsequently be transformed into a style. Barely a few weeks after the opening of the show, Magritte used the excuse of his wife’s supposedly negative reaction to bring the adventure to an end: “I would quite like to continue with the ‘approach’ I experimented with in Paris, and take it further. That’s my tendency: one of slow suicide. But there’s Georgette and my familiar disgust with being ‘sincere’. Georgette prefers the well-made painting of ‘yesteryear’, so particularly to please Georgette in future I’m going to show the painting of yesteryear. I’ll find a way to slip in a great big incongruity from time to time.”
René Magritte, The Pictorial Content, 1947
Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981
René Magritte, The Tow Plug (El encededor), 1947
Jörg Immendorff, Man with Monkey Mask and Brush in Snow Sphere, 2000
René Magritte, The Cripple II- 1948