Art history likes periods, whether for the purposes of simplification or edification. Thus Picasso’s blue and pink periods are evoked, most often in order to contrast them with one another, as are Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical and return-to-order periods, or the mechanomorphic and abstract periods of Francis Picabia. In most cases the artists themselves play no part in these classifications and registrations. They are particularly difficult to determine when René Magritte is concerned. It is possible, of course, to perceive Impressionist and Cubist influences at the beginning of his career. But running contrary to the abstract, figurative, automatic and oneiric styles that ceaselessly articulated the history of painting at this time, and Surrealism in particular, Magritte would opt, from 1925 onwards, to “paint objects only with their apparent details”.
So it was with full knowledge of the facts that he twice decided 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. It’s hard to understand these decisions outside of their historical context, that of the Second World War and the Liberation. The painter’s Impressionist period also coincides with his self-distancing from official Parisian Surrealism. His manifesto Surrealism in full sunlight, which he concocted in 1946 with the complicity of Marcel Mariën, Paul Nougé, Louis Scutenaire, Joë Bousquet, Jacques Michel and Jacques Wergifosse, a prelude to the manifestos of extramentalism and amentalism, is an instrument of warfare directed against the magic, esoteric ideology into which André Breton had strayed. “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. Behind this term, of course, we must read an ironic reference to the historically listed Fauve (literally wild beast) painting of Derain, Matisse and Braque. Vache would thus be the conniving and trivial reverse of Fauve, a term that was originally pejorative but which has, over time, been wreathed with the values of lyricism and flamboyance. The category of bovidae in fact supplies fewer inspiring metaphors than that of wild beasts. 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 and gouaches, representing a radical departure from the painter’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 injunctions and prescriptions.
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, which is clearly in line with Magritte’s intentions. 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, we had, deep in our forests, in our green pastures.” Traditionally, the Belgians are seen as coarse peasants by the French, including the intellectuals (in about 1865 Charles Baudelaire had written his pamphlet Poor Belguim). This chauvinism, still prevalent event among the holiest of holies of Parisian Surrealism, is here in a sense returned to 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.”
The tone is set. Scut’ and Mag’ (their signatures, indicating their friendship and complicity) have decided to turn this exhibition into a kind of explosive manifesto against the arrogance and pedantry of the sycophants of the ideology advocated by André Breton. “The moment had come to strike a great blow,” Scutenaire would explain in retrospect. The two associates laid it on the line, The works shown in Paris joyfully mix comedy, viciousness and coarseness of the most scatological kind. In this respect they continue the visual counterpart to the three tracts that Magritte published in 1946 along with Marcel Mariën ( The Imbecile, The Pain in the Arse, The Sod), in which one could already read a supreme contempt for all kinds of convention. Pictorial Content is probably the painting in the series which best allegorises Magritte’s desire to attack the pictorial practices with which he himself had engaged up until that point. It is no longer resemblance that is brought to the fore here, but an excess of distortion and a stridency of colour.
The runny trickles provide 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, from German Neo-Expressionism to the Italian trans-avantgarde, via French free figuration, 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 certain caricatures by the Belgian cartoonist Deladoës, or even direct borrowings of scenes from the Adventures des Pieds nickels, the famous strip drawn by Louis Forton for L’Epatant (The Mountain-dweller, Pictorial Content, The Triumpal March, Jean-Marie, Famine).
In spite of their unbridled style, they are not entirely alien to the painter’s universe. The Ellipse, depicting a huntsman whose rifle appears where his nose should be, The Old Soldier (a poor, ill, veteran who can no longer fight, decked out 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 chromatic stridencies, 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 miming “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.
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. This 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.”