The Fondation René Magritte has confirmed the authenticity of this drawing.
During the early 1960s Magritte painted at least three gouaches he titled Hommage à Alphonse Allais, in tribute to a French writer and humorist whom he much admired. In order to suggest the eccentric imagination of his subject, and to delve into the very essence of wordplay and humor, Magritte employed in each work the image of the proverbial "fish out of water," thus following his usual procedure of removing an object from its normal context and exposing it to other elements that alter its fundamental and accepted nature, resulting in an image that is startling, unexpected and mysterious.
Magritte discovered in the whimsical writings of Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) a spirit that was in many respects kindred to his own. He wrote to his friend Maurice Rapin in 1958: "I happen to be re-reading Allais, and you mention him: what a terrific guy! ...When the joke reaches the pitch to which Alphonse Allais brings it, it's obvious then this joke becomes frightening or loses its charm in those circles that are interested in being amused. Thus Allais is not a scribbler, but someone who really belongs to the literary world" (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, p. 53).
Allais was known for his bon mots and witty anecdotes. He also wrote poems, cultivating a verse form known as the holorhyme, in which one line rhymes entirely with the next, creating couplets derived from a series of puns. Unfortunately, the rhyming effect is virtually impossible to sustain in translation, as it would be in the following:
Par les bois du djinn ou s'entasse de l'effoi,
Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de lait froid.
Allais was a musician and artist--of an unusual kind--as well. In 1897 he composed his Funeral March for the Last Rites of a Deaf Man, which ran to 24 blank measures of score, which some have likened to John Cage's 4'33", his famous silent composition which was first performed in 1952. Allais showed works at the Salon des Arts Incohérents, held at the Galerie Vivienne, Paris. In the 1883 exhibition he presented a plain white sheet of Bristol paper which he titled First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow, and in the following year he displayed an empty sheet of red paper, Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea (Study of the Aurora Borealis). Some have claimed Allais to be a forerunner of Conceptual Art. André Breton enjoyed the sardonic and proto-surrealist elements in Allais' writings, and he included the author in his Anthologie de l'humour noir.
Two of Magritte's homages to Allais have been recorded in the Magritte catalogue raisonné: no. 1502, painted in 1962; and no. 1548, dated 1964 (fig. 1). The two published works represent female (no. 1502, a fish decked with pearls) and male (no. 1548, a fish-cigar) versions of this theme. The present gouache is a variant of the female version done in 1962; it employs similar imagery, but in this instance Magritte elected to use a vertically-oriented sheet rather than repeat the horizontal format of the earlier gouache. The string of pearls around the fish recalls the pearl-mask of Magritte's Shéhérazade series (Sylvester, nos. 1221-1232); pearls may connote the subject's skill at story-telling, as a stringer of tales. Dating from circa 1964, the present gouache was likely done in conjunction with the male version Magritte painted that year. The artist had earlier used the image of the fish-cigar in the oil painting L'exception, 1963 (Sylvester, no. 977).
Both Allais and Magritte counted on, as the basis of their art, the perception of resemblance among things in the real world. Allais exploited the multiplicity of meanings that can be derived from the sound and appearance of ordinary words. Magritte also engaged in word play, but he was primarily interested in the shifting connections we make based on the visual appearance of things. The artist wrote in 1960: "The art of painting--which should actually be called the art of resemblance--enables us to describe in painting a thought that has the potential of becoming visible. This thought includes only those images the world offers: people, curtains, weapons, stars, solids, inscriptions, etc. Resemblance spontaneously unites these figures in an order that immediately evokes mystery" (quoted in ibid., p. 222).
(fig. 1) René Magritte, Hommage à Alphonse Allais, 1964. Private collection.