A frame draws a border around one sort of reality – a painting, for example – and sets it apart from the larger and perhaps very different reality that surrounds it. So in Magritte’s paintings, there are many examples where a nude torso or a piece of sky is framed and isolated. Yet at the same time, we well know that this separation is but an illusion, that what is in the frame and outside it are both made of the same substance: paint.
There are many different uses of frames in Magritte’s paintings. In ‘The Empty Mask’ (1928) and ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’ (1930), they compartmentalize fragments of the world – a bit of forest, a house façade, a fire –, give it a structure that is nevertheless quite arbitrary. Sometimes, the frame seems to refer to and undercut its traditional role in separating the work of art from the outside world. In ‘Blood Letting’ (1938-9), a frame surrounds the section of brick wall that lies – normally unseen – behind the neutral wall of the gallery.
Finally there are a few examples where Magritte moved out from the internal illusion of his painting to work with its actual framing. In ‘Representation’ (1937), the frame is actually moulded round the lower part of a nude female torso. Even more extensively, ‘L’evidence eternelle’ (1930) consists of five small framed paintings stacked vertically and depicting from top to bottom the face of a woman (it is Magritte’s wife Georgette), her breasts, her pubic area, her knees and her feet. (The title is somewhat ambiguous – it has been translated as both ‘Eternal Evidence’ and as ‘The Eternally Obvious’.)
The five frames are placed so as to depict the actual relationships of these parts and to give the illusion that the rest of the body might continue outside the frame and connect into a whole. When reproduced on a white page, it’s as if the body were behind the page and the framed sections were cut out to show us parts of it. But the effect of seeing the work itself is rather different. The work does not hang on the wall replicating the effect described above with the page. Rather, it sits a foot or so out into the room, with the five frames held in their right place by a transparent support (originally glass, now plastic).
This three-dimensional physicality was always important (there is a photograph where René holds the work as he might the real Georgette) and it adds an additionally unnerving element to the work. Where now is the body that might lie around and between the paintings? Evaporated, it seems; certainly neither eternal nor evident.
‘L’evidence eternelle’ is now in the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and when I was in Houston in 2010 for a conference on ‘Surrealism and the Americas’, I went looking for it there. But I was disappointed not to find it on show in the galleries. That evening, there was a reception at the Menil and I asked the Director Josef Helfenstein: where was ‘L’evidence eternelle’? Was it out on loan? No, he said, it was up in the storeroom. Would I like to see it?
We went up in a lift, along a corridor, through a keypad security code, and he opened a large white door and turned on a light. This room, he said, was nicknamed the ‘Treasure House’ and I could see why. The room was lined floor to ceiling with paintings, including two walls of Magrittes.
And there, standing in a corner, was ‘L’evidence eternelle’. It (she?) looked small and fragile, and, as always with this sort of privileged access, one’s relationship with the work felt more direct than it would downstairs. It is always a charged situation, but here, it felt particularly so, a little awkward and intensely intimate at the same time.