The title that Magritte gave to this painting, Le Cicérone, is an old term used to designate a guide, someone who is especially knowledgeable in the fields of archeology, art and history, and conducts tours of sightseers in museums and at other sites of cultural interest. The word is Italian in origin, and probably refers to Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), the Roman linguist, philosopher, lawyer, politician and statesman, who was renowned for the breadth of his knowledge and his skill as an orator. The word "cicerone" was actually first recorded in an English publication, in 1726, and by the time of the New English Dictionary of 1762, it had come to denote for the English traveling abroad, especially those visiting Italy, a learned antiquarian who could be engaged to point out and lecture on the noteworthy sites, artifacts and curiosities of his native city or region.
The term "cicerone" has more recently been used as a title for someone with expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving the many international and local varieties of beers, a role similar to that of a sommelier in the world of wine. This connotation is not particularly relevant in the context of the present painting, but elsewhere Magritte has depicted similar cicerone-like figures holding a glass filled with a beverage of some indeterminate nature. It not unusual in Magritte's paintings for an object to simultaneously manifest the multiple roles and meanings that have accrued to it over time, and indeed Magritte often liked to spotlight these varied and sometimes disparate connotations.
Magritte could properly consider himself to be a kind of cicerone. He was as knowledgeable in the fields of language and poetry as he was skilled and well-practiced in the art of visual representation. Magritte created a world for which he was uniquely qualified to serve as guide, an unfamiliar place for many, where objects are at first appearance recognizable and unmistakable, very real and even rather ordinary, yet taken together in the context in which the artist has assembled them, they suggest an alternate, unforeseen and mysterious reality. "I do not juxtapose strange elements to shock," Magritte commented to a magazine reporter. "I describe my thoughts of mystery, which is the union of everything and anything we know" (quoted in "The square Surrealist," Newsweek, 5 January 1966, p. 58). Magritte was not the complete cicerone, however, for while he was expert at leading his viewers to the revelation of the mysterious in commonplace things, he left them at that point to their own devices--he consistently refused to offer explanations of his paintings.
Magritte has given the cicerone in the present painting the form which Harry Torczyner has described as an "anthropoid bilboquet" (in Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, p. 152). The bilboquet is among the frequently encountered stock images in Magritte's oeuvre. The artist took this object from an old game played with the French version of a cup-and-ball toy, which in its basic form is known in many cultures throughout the world. The bilboquet consists of a ball with a hole bored into it, which fits on a spike at the top of a wooden stick shaped to fit the hand. The ball is attached to the handle with a string--the player flings the ball upward, and then tries to catch it on the spike as often as he can within a designated period of time. The term "bilboquet" may also refer to a wooden cylinder which has been turned on a lathe to create a scalloped silhouette with a ball-shaped finial for use in balustrades, as table and chair legs, and for other decorative purposes. The bilboquet first appeared in Magritte's early paintings of the 1920s, and quickly assumed anthropomorphic qualities, becoming a stand-in for a quasi-human presence. The artist would refer to them simply as his "wooden figures," and they constitute his counterpart to the trovatores that de Chirico fabricated in his paintings from mannequin heads, scrap wood and fabric.
A more evolved form of the bilboquet began to appear in Magritte's paintings in 1945. The artist elongated the spherical shape of the ball atop the handle into a bulbously spouted form that resembles the squat shape of a nineteenth century mortar, an artillery piece used for hurling explosive shells in steep trajectories over the walls of fortifications. The content of wartime newsreels may have suggested this allusion--in some pictures where the artist has employed this form, the mouth of the bilboquet actually bursts forth in flames, like a cannon being fired. Now equipped with snouts and mouths, the "anthropoid bilboquets" seem eager show off their newly acquired gift of speech, and they usually appear, as seen here, in a formal and declamatory stance, bringing to mind the noble oratory for which Cicero was celebrated.
An august patrician such as Cicero would have worn a white toga in Roman times. Magritte has draped his wooden figures, however, in red mantles, such as that a Roman centurion and legionnaire would wear, and indeed there is a military aspect to Magritte's orators, which the mortar-like appearance of their heads serves to reinforce. This aggressive tendency seems apt in paintings where the speaker is especially eager to make his point, such as in Les droits de l'homme, 1948 (Sylvester, no. 638; fig. 1), or in one of the early versions of the present subject, from 1947, which is also titled Le Cicérone (Sylvester, no. 626; fig. 2). As the cicerone declaims on his subject, he usually holds up a small leaf by way of a prop and an example, no mean thing, as Magritte would surely remind us, for in his paintings a single leaf may represent an entire tree, and by extension, the vastness and complexity of nature itself. In the 1945 painting in which Magritte first introduced the snouted bilboquet, one of these wooden figures is holding a leaf: the artist titled this work Les rencontres naturelles (Sylvester, no. 595).
Magritte based the present Le Cicérone of 1964-1965 on another early version of this subject, a painting dating from 1948 (Sylvester, no. 662; fig. 3). The artist recast the vertical aspect of the previous work into the horizontal format seen here, allowing more room for the imposingly broad and heroic physique of the wooden figure. In both versions Magritte placed the cicerone by the ledge of an outdoor balcony, which looks out on a night sky lit by a slender crescent moon. The earlier version included an eerily moonlit sea, which Magritte has eliminated in the present painting, having instead further darkened the sky and filled it with the gauzy forms of faintly illuminated clouds.
Some of the cicerone pictures project a sense of communal purpose, in which the orators appear to expound on some topic from a political or social agenda. One painting, La terre promise, 1947, even depicts a scene of bilboquettish conviviality (Sylvester, no. 627; fig. 4). The cicerone here, however, is self-communing, which lends this painting a strongly spiritual character, imbuing the scene with something like the mystical and romanticist atmosphere of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. The solitary speaker appears to engage in some sort of dramatic monologue, with as his only audience the viewer, who might well surmise that the subject he has been contemplating, and on which he is now practicing his skills of elocution, is no less grand than the very nature of the cosmos, and his place within it. Nevertheless, however knowledgeable our cicerone may be, however noble his purpose or his quest, he is, after all--as Magritte clearly shows--merely a piece of wood. The artist in his ironic bent reminds us that all of this self-important talk is ultimately posturing and sophistry, and there is very little the cicerone, or real humankind for that matter, can actually know for certain. Magritte declared: "The existence of the world and our own existence are shocking to contemplate. They are absolutely incomprehensible whatever explanations are offered" (quoted in ibid., p. 224).
(fig. 1) René Magritte, Les droits de l'homme, 1947-1948. Sold, Christie's London, 26 March 1984, lot 36. BARCODE 27237540
(fig. 2) René Magritte, Le Cicérone, 1947. Private collection. BARCODE 27237533
(fig. 3) René Magritte, Le Cicérone, 1948. Sold, Christie's London, 27 June 1988, lot 60. BARCODE 27237519
(fig. 4) René Magritte, La terre promise, 1947. Private collection. BARCODE 27237526