“An enigma.” “Incomprehensible.” “Illuminating knowledge with mystery.” These are some of the phrases that caught my eye as I leafed through the writings of René Magritte. Piles of books are spread around the book shop, some highly decorated. I decide upon ‘Les Mots et les Images’ (Brussels: Espace Nord, 2012), perhaps because it is a work that is simple in its complexity. I join the queue and once again I am surprised how easy it is to wait your turn in this city.
I smile at the pompous name of the place: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. I ponder this and many other thoughts crowding my head. Looking through a large window I see that once again it is raining in Brussels. A string of drops of water is forming underneath a cable strung horizontally. They look like diamonds, a beautiful trick of the light. Perhaps the most beautiful picture shown today on this island of museums, while we wander the room unaware of this small miracle. I pay and continue on my erratic visit.
“Obtaining an image that resists any explanation”, I read in ‘Les Mots et les Images’, and decide to move to the building next door that houses the Museum of Ancient Art: without reading any explanations but just letting myself be carried along. I lose my sense of direction. Suddenly, I find myself entranced in front of a tableau and I cannot help opening the Magritte book once again and writing in pencil on the first page which is always blank in books:
HIERONYMUS VAN AKEN dit BOSCH. Bois-le-duc? 1516
TRIPTYQUE DE LA TENTATION DE SAINT ANTOINE
avers SCÈNES DE LA TENTATION DE SAINT ANTOINE
revers, volet gauche L’ARRESTATION DU CHRIST
revers, volet droit LE PORTEMENT DE CROIX
signé – inv. 3032
“The connection is dubious”, a man says softly to a woman. The notice said: réplique (replica). I smile once again because another of the Magritte quotes I have remembered comes into my head: “It is not necessary to see a picture; a reproduction is enough.”
The triptych is displayed splendidly. It looks like a window, with the two shutters open pair by pair, reflecting in another dimension the scene that is taking place through this glass metaphor. The horizon appears aligned in the three tableaux, joining together each of the tales depicted. However, one’s eyes give up on seeing the whole: they are irresistibly drawn to each detail, to these series of infernal creatures advancing in processions like a puzzle of miniature wing-beats.
There are fish devouring each other, snakes with horses’ feet, nuns with rats’ tails, spiders with many more legs than real spiders, hills that turn out to be men on all fours with their anuses swollen, flying insects impossible to imagine… Pacheco said that Bosch was a “painter of lascivious whims”, and the comic Quevedo called him an “unbeliever who covers his lack of faith with mockery”. But today I want to leave aside all these stories and history itself, even the figure of Saint Anthony as the first hermit who had to withstand terrible attacks by the devil.
Suddenly time stands still. About two hours ago I saw a man with a fish head painted by Magritte. Now I find myself hypnotised by this impossible collection of beasts. A few rooms further on I will find the fall of the rebel angels described so well by Brueghel: a zoological collection of insects and other animated creatures. There is a woman with butterfly wings beating to the rhythm of her animal instinct and a fish waving his man’s arms with sorrow.
I look out of the window again. The rain keeps falling in this city. I ask myself if it is yesterday, today or tomorrow. Because the drops are still there like magnifying glasses. If you get closer, what a world of mystery each contains.