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Tapping the Subconscious: Automatism and Dreams

Discover how Surrealist artists tapped the creative potential of the subconscious mind.


The Palace of Curtains, III

René Magritte
(Belgian, 1898–1967)

1929. Oil on canvas, 32 x 45 7/8" (81.2 x 116.4 cm)

The Palace of Curtains, III is one in a series of paintings by René Magritte that explores the resonances between words and images. Two polygons with nearly identical profiles lean against a wood-paneled wall. Each shape frames a depiction of sky, one with a painted representation, the other with language (the French word ciel, meaning sky).

Magritte was fond of unexpected pairings between interior and exterior scenes, as with the patch of blue sky against the finite backdrop of the wall. Placing words in absurd or unexpected contexts, Magritte challenged the conventional use of language. Though the use of text in his word-picture pairings may seem incongruous, Magritte viewed all language as arbitrary: “An image is not so wedded to its name,” said Magritte, “that one cannot find another which suits it better.”1

Magritte quoted in David Sylvester, Magritte (Houston: Menil Foundation, 1992), 210.
Ibid., 289.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

Was Magritte a Surrealist?
Magritte painted The Palace of Curtains, III during a three-year stay in Paris, where he associated with the Surrealist group led by André Breton. Magritte is often called a Surrealist, but he did not self-identify with the movement or engage in the automatist methods that dominated Surrealist painting of the time. And, in contrast to the fantastical imagery of some Surrealists, Magritte’s work stuck to banal, even drab, domestic settings like this middle-class interior, maintaining a sense of realism even while depicting the most uncanny situations.

Don’t Judge a Work by its Title
Rather than lending clarity to his paintings, Magritte’s titles often defy explanation, challenging the viewer to form his or her own interpretations. In explaining his preference for cryptic titles, which generally bear no direction relation to the visuals, Magritte wrote, “We must be careful to avoid—as far as possible—titles that lend themselves too easily to stupid interpretations.”2