MOST of Ren'e Magritte's paintings, if they had been made of words instead of paint, would surely have begun with the inter-rogative, ``What if . . . ?'' What if a table could stand on top of an apple? What if a glass of water is balanced on an opened umbrella? What if a rose is large enough to fill an entire room (or the room so small that it can only contain a rose)? What if leather boots have human toes? What if a tuba bursts into flames? And what if nighttime and daytime are simultaneous and in the same place?
This Belgian-born artist's aim was to make ``unexpected images of the unknown.'' But he disliked the fantastic. He arrived at the unfamiliar via the very familiar, even the banal. If his pictures seemed to others defiant of common sense, so, he countered, is the world defiant of common sense.
The visible world is full of illusions and contradictions, nonsensical and illogical connections -- but we are so accustomed to them that we scarcely notice them. Magritte's paintings surprise the spectator into a state of mystification about what had previously seemed self-explanatory.
At the end of her book about Magritte, Suzi Gablik quoted the artist saying that in painting what matters is ``the power of enchantment.'' Then she went on to quote Elizabeth Bowen's comment on this ``power'': ``Where would Wonderland be without the dogmatic lucidity of the temperamentally unadventurous Alice?''
Magritte approached his painting-land in precisely this spirit. He disclaimed ``meaning'' and ``symbolism.'' He wasn't interested in painting for its own sake, or in stylistic originality. He refuted dreams as a source of imagery. He denied painting ``ideas.'' What he painted was images. He explored (with an inventiveness always tempered by his ``dogmatic lucidity'') the apparent freedom granted to objects when they become painted images instead of actual objects. What is possible to ``objects'' in a painting comes closer to what is possible to them in the imagination. He thought of his paintings as poems made of images rather than words.
Ms. Gablik, talking of his use of the double-image (where two images inhabit the same object -- a bottle is a woman, for instance, or a top hat is a head), writes that he used it as ``an instrument of metaphysical knowledge, to evoke the power of thought, which is capable of being in two places at the same time.''
As for ``L'empire des lumi`eres'' (``The Empire of Lights''), Magritte himself commented: ``. . . what is represented in the picture'' (and he is referring to a number of versions and variations) ``are the things I ideated, i.e., a nighttime landscape and a sky such as we see during the day. The landscape evokes night and the sky evokes day.
``I find this evocation of night and day is endowed with the power to surprise and enchant us. I call this power: poetry.
``If I believe this evocation has such poetic power, it is because, among other reasons, I have always felt the greatest interest in night and in day, yet without ever having preferred one to the other.
``This great personal interest in night and day is a feeling of admiration and astonishment.''
According to our localized physical experience, night and day happen at different times. A broader view is that in fact they occur at the same time but in different places. What if art made them happen in the same place?
Perhaps the strangest thing about ``The Empire of Lights'' is that rather than seeming peculiar, or dislocated in some way, it seems perfectly natural. It does not provoke a sense of disturbance as many of Magritte's paintings do. Instead it seems that he has found a way of balancing the open sunlit sky with the secrets and cosy intimacy of night, with its streetlamps and warmly lit windows. If the effect is surprising, it is not dismaying. It is imagination having the best of two worlds.
Time and space seem suspended. The world seems a place both exterior and interior -- its unquestioned objectivity seen, without resort to the fantastic, as highly subjective.
Of another painting, Magritte observed that it ``is 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.'' Through painted images he was able to convey this truism, and to do so with all the appearance of a prosaic dispassion. Nevertheless, the result, as here, is often a kind of enchantment.