by Kimmo Rosenthal
The Battle of the Argonne, also known as the Battle of the Bulge, was a momentous turning point in World War I. In light of that, what to make of this eponymous painting that I am looking at? There is the spectacle of a huge boulder suspended in the sky, facing off against a cottony cloud. They are enveloped by what at first seems to be a deepening crepuscular light under a small sliver of a moon, with a melancholy, smoke-blue landscape, and a tiny white strip of clouds above a town, whose buildings anchor the viewer to something more earthly than the disconcerting weightlessness of the rock. But, on second glance, might it be early morning with the faintest glimmer of incipient light rendering the blue sheen on the horizon, as the adversaries square off for another day? Painting can be appreciated without being able to articulate its appeal yet, as with poetry, the patience required to attain understanding is worth the diligent effort.
How to interpret this surreal scene with its two combatants? Surely, the flocculent cloud is no match for the hard, unyielding, portentous rock. As I was abstractedly musing, I recalled that Magritte preferred to think of himself as a philosopher, using paint rather than words to communicate his thoughts. Is this just another example of René Magritte’s playful side? One can imagine him standing off to the side of the easel with an arch, ironic smile beneath his black bowler hat.
Imagination as Value
“Imagination helps us live our lives. We have it because without it we do not have enough.”
My first real appreciation of Wallace Stevens came not from his poetry – although later I came to marvel at its elegant abstractions and philosophical insights – rather, having been increasingly fascinated by the literature of our inner world, I read his book of essays, The Necessary Angel, on reality and imagination. He asserts that we live in a state of tension due to the balancing act between reality and the imagination lying at the heart of our daily existence.
Reading essays such as Imagination as Value, a sense of insight into The Battle of the Argonne began to emerge. There is an on-going imaginary, yet very real, battle we are embroiled in at every moment. The so-called adversaries are our perceptions of the visible world (reality, if you will) and the recalibration of these perceptions in the invisible world within us, governed by our imaginations. The images in the mind are themselves real to us; the world as we imagine it is rife with possibilities, more accommodating, and more comforting. In the words of Stevens, the world about us would be desolate except for the world within us. Things are not necessarily what they appear to be, rather they are how we imagine them. Stevens asserts that the imagination holds power over this possibility of things, and we can be who we want to be while embracing beauty and happiness. It provides a means of filtering reality; imagination helps us combat the pressures engulfing us through its salvific power.
Abstraction and clouds
“The imagination is the only genius. It is intrepid and eager and the extreme of its achievement lies in abstraction.”
When Stevens wrote his monumental Notes to a Supreme Fiction, one of the first requirements postulated was that it must be abstract. He echoes this in the above quote from The Necessary Angel. As in mathematics, it is only through abstraction that we can properly organize the world around us; abstraction provides us with an overview and the means of reconfiguring and relearning the world of facts. Although imagination is at times viewed as inimical to rationality and reason, being duplicitous and deceiving us, it can be a beacon lighting the way for us to interpret the world and help us create our own supreme fiction.
The key to the genius of Magritte lies in understanding the abstraction inherent in his work; yet, it is not solely of the imagination but retains contact with reality. When Stevens talks about being able to find the normal in the abnormal, the transcendence of Magritte’s art occurs because of his insight and ability to also see the abnormal in the normal. I am coming to realize that in The Battle of the Argonne perhaps the rock is not in the ascendancy, though one might argue that ultimately reality will prove the victor. Magritte has depicted them as equal adversaries (and has them co-existing less confrontationally in the painting Clear Ideas). In his chapter on clouds in Air and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard articulates the notion that clouds represents the greatest power of the imagination with their movement, mutability, and power to transform into whatever we wish to perceive in them. Clouds allow for reverie without responsibility. When contemplating clouds we are momentarily absolved from the world’s responsibilities. Clouds are the image of absolute sublimation representing the ultimate voyage, and thus are the paradigmatic visual image for the imagination. Magritte has painted our very own on-going and eternal Battle of the Argonne, as we confront the rock-hard, unyielding infrangibility of our straitened existence, which struggles against the efforts of our imagination to transfigure that reality. We are constantly engaged in trying to create what Stevens calls the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice, although our efforts may ultimately prove insufficient. Stevens casts imagination and reality as interdependent equals. Apposite to the notion of a battle being engaged, he ends his essay The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words by describing imagination pushing back against an intransigent reality as “the violence from within that protects us from the violence without.”
Ut pictura poesis
Centuries ago in Ars Poetica, Horace proclaimed the above – that poetry should aspire to painting. There is something undeniably poetic about Magritte’s work. In fact, he has said that he wants his painting, conversely to Horace’s proclamation, to aspire to poetry. Wallace Stevens, in his final essay in The Necessary Angel, discusses the relation and confluence between poetry and painting, issuing a clarion call for the arts as supporting the kind of life that is worth living. Viewing The Battle of the Argonne with Stevens acting as intermediary, I have the sense of having alighted upon a measured perspective with which to view the painting; this impression holds all the more fast when I look at another painting, A Sense of Reality. There is the boulder again, now more imposing and ominous in the foreground, suspended in its timeless fixity, underneath a Tiepolo sky suggestive of flights of reverie were it not for, as the title suggests, an unavoidable sense of reality.
Magritte, in these paintings, captures what I have come to view as the conflict between the weight of reality and the consolation of possibility, our own daily, imaginary Battle of the Argonne.
Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (Essays on Reality and the Imagination), Vintage Books, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1951
Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams (An Essay on the Imagination of Movement), The Dallas Institute Publications, 2002
Kimmo Rosenthal has turned from a career in mathematics to writing. His work has appeared in the U.S. and internationally, and he has a Pushcart Prize nomination. Recent works are in The Fib Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Hinterland, After the Art, The RavensPerch, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and The Decadent Review.