‘Black magic. It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky.’
(R. Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, p. 187)
The light is so pure and so present that the body gives itself over to the colour of the sky and slips away from our sight like the darkest night. This is, however, only the transparent spell of reality and not a miracle. Suddenly, arising from the depths of the image or ourselves, one can hear a kind of solemn warning.’
(Paul Nougé, in exh. cat., Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, New York, Houston and Chicago, 2013, p. 160)
Framed by an opulent red curtain, a beautiful nude woman stands in front of a tranquil seascape, holding a white rose in her hand as she stares impassively out of the picture plane in René Magritte’s beguiling La magie noire. It is immediately clear that a mysterious metamorphosis has taken place in the figure of the woman: statuesque and motionless, her body has metamorphosed from flesh to sky, the pale pink skin tones of her legs and torso transforming into the same pastel blue hue of the sky that stretches endlessly behind her. In this way, the female figure appears as a strange and impossible statue of flesh and sky; both tangible and transparent, her head and bust seemingly carved out of air itself. One of Magritte’s most recognisable motifs, La magie noire, painted in 1942, is an image of strange juxtapositions and unexpected poeticism. Never before seen at auction, it is one of an important series of paintings, all of which take the motif of the metamorphosing nude figure placed in front of an idyllic landscape.
Magritte had first explored the subject of La magie noire in 1934, in an oil painting of the same name (Sylvester, no. 355). In this painting, a similar nude woman is framed by a jagged wall of an interior in front of a tranquil seascape, with a dove perched upon her shoulder. Just a few months before he painted this first iteration of the magie noire theme, Magritte had participated in an exhibition, Le nu dans l’art vivant, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Bringing together 100 paintings and sculptures on the theme of the nude by artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, it is thought that this show, in which Magritte also exhibited three works, prompted a renewed exploration on the female nude in his work. Confronted with an array of conceptions on this esteemed genre, Magritte was said to have been particularly inspired by Maillol’s classicising treatment of the nude in sculpture. He subsequently painted La magie noire as well as Le viol (Sylvester, no. 356), both of which he included in Minotaure, an exhibition organised to celebrate the first anniversary of the Surrealist periodical of the same name, which opened a few months later, in May of the same year in Brussels.
With La magie noire, Magritte created a new, Surrealist conception of the classical nude. This theme firmly planted itself in Magritte’s imagination, as he went on to paint numerous variations on the theme of La magie noire, of which the present work is one, as well as more than a dozen works of different titles in which a similar three-quarter length nude woman stands either frontally or in profile, in front of a panoramic landscape. Taking as his initial model his wife Georgette, Magritte invented a nude figure that, with her perfectly symmetrical facial features, and smooth flawless body, is reminiscent of the idealised sculptures of antiquity; works that stood as the epitome of beauty and grace. Perfectly poised, in the present work, her figure appears not like a living, breathing woman, but like a statue, her body evoking the cool solidity and polished, unblemished surface of marble. Yet, nothing is ever what it seems in Magritte’s work. Depicted in a state of metamorphosis, the nude is quite literally transforming in front of our eyes from flesh into sky, turning from mortal human into a celestial being, from woman into the archetypal ‘Eternal Feminine’.
It was Magritte himself who came up with the title, La magie noire, explaining, ‘Black magic. It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, p. 187). The mysterious ‘alchemy’, as Paul Nougé described the metamorphosis that dominates the present work, is one of the central themes that runs throughout Magritte’s art. Yet, Magritte was not attempting to depict a moment of supernatural magic, but was instead revealing the mysteries inherent in reality, drawing the viewer into, ‘a theatre of the unpredictable’ (M. Draguet & C. Goormans, in exh. cat., Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, New York, 2014, p. 160). As Nougé explained, ‘The light is so pure and so present that the body gives itself over to the colour of the sky and slips away from our sight like the darkest night. This is, however, only the transparent spell of reality and not a miracle. Suddenly, arising from the depths of the image or ourselves, one can hear a kind of solemn warning’ (Nougé, ibid., p. 160). In so many of Magritte’s compositions, objects are undergoing a transformation, depicted as they change from one state or identity to another; as he explained, ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change of substance in the case of certain objects: a wooden sky, for instance; the use of words in association with images; the misnaming of an object… the use of certain visions glimpsed between sleeping and waking, such in general were the means devised to force objects out of the ordinary, to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world’ (Magritte, ‘La Ligne de vie’, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., exh. cat., René Magritte 1898-1967, Brussels, 1998, p. 46). As flesh turns to sky, and mass into lightness, La magie noire abounds with juxtapositions and transformations, embodying one of the central tenets of Magritte’s enigmatic and highly distinctive form of Surrealism.