Windows offer us a view from one space into another, while at the same time creating a barrier between the two realities. Several of Magritte’s paintings depict an interior room with a window at the back through which one can glimpse a bit of the exterior world – sky or sea or mountains or forest. In short, a possibility of freedom, at once uplifting and (perhaps deliberately) banal.
But, in other paintings, there is a more complex and ambiguous interaction between inside and outside. The image of the world might be imprinted on the glass itself, an action that seems to have shattered it (‘Evening Falls’, 1964). Or the vertical panels of the opened window have sea, sky and clouds on them, but reveal only darkness beyond (‘The Field Glass’, 1963). Or most famously, a canvas has been set on an easel before the window and the landscape on the canvas precisely matches up with the landscape seen through the window.
Magritte called this last painting ‘The Human Condition’ and said that it was a response to the ‘problem of the window’. He was unusually explicit in its meaning. The picture, said Magritte, was an analogy for ‘how we see the world: we see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves’. And whether that interior image matches the exterior reality is something we can never be sure of.
‘The Human Condition’ was painted in 1933 while the Magrittes were living in a ground floor apartment at 135 rue Esseghem in the Brussels suburb of Jette. This is now the Musée René Magritte (very different to the newer Musée Magritte in the city centre), and, when I went there soon after it opened in 1999, I was shown round the apartment by a guide who held up postcards of Magritte’s pictures to show the correspondence between a feature in a painting and its counterpart in reality.
One of these postcards was ‘The Human Condition’ and the window in it is very close to the actual front window at 135, Rue Esseghem. The latter now looks out on to a row of houses on the other side of the narrow street, but these were in fact built after the time of the painting. In 1933, there were indeed open fields on the other side of the street. And in the museum guidebook I bought on my visit, the window was shown with a view of fields and trees montaged in, just as they are in the painting.