René Magritte (1898-1967)
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René Magritte (1898-1967)

La géante

René Magritte (1898-1967)
La géante
signed 'magritte' (upper right); signed, titled and dated 'LA GEANTE MAGRITTE 1935' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
28¾ x 23 5/8in. (73 x 60cm.)
Painted in 1935
Paul-Henri Spaak, Brussels, by 1936.
Margaret Krebs, Brussels, by whom acquired in the 1960s.
Ado Blaton, Brussels, by whom acquired from the above.
Jacky Ickx, Brussels, a gift from the above, his father-in-law.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 12 November 1970, lot 70.
Acquired at the above sale by the father of the present owners.
Letter from Magritte to André Breton, July 1934.
R. Magritte, La ligne de vie, a lecture given in Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum van Schoone Kunsten, 20 November 1938.
P. Waldberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, p. 227 (illustrated). F. Cachin, 'Magritte, ou Mandrake contre Maigret', Preuves, Paris, July 1966, p. 80.
ed. D. Sylvester, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, Antwerp, 1993, no. 362 (illustrated p. 194).
ed. D. Sylvester, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. V, Antwerp, 1997, Chron. 38.5.2, p. 21 (reconstructed text of the 1938 lecture).
Antwerp, Feestzaal, Kunst van heden: salon 1935, July 1935, no. 145.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, René Magritte: peintures, objets surréalistes, April-May 1936, no. 26.
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, René Magritte: het mysterie van de werkelijkheid, Aug.-Sept. 1967. This exhibition later travelled to Stockholm, Moderna Museet.
Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 'Hommage à René Magritte', 41e salon du Cercle Royal Artistique et Littéraire de Charleroi, Feb. 1968, no. 130.
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Lot Essay

Writing to André Breton in 1934, Magritte discussed the seeds of the idea that led to the creation of La géante (The Giantess), saying that he was 'trying… to discover what it is in a tree that belongs to it specifically but which would run counter to our concept of a tree' (Magritte, letter to Breton, quoted in ed. D Sylvester, op. cit., vol. II, p. 194). This was a part of Magritte's pioneering adventures into the nature of the world and our perceptions, disrupting the absolute expectations people have about the nature of specific objects. So with the tree, Magritte sought the idiosyncratic, signature element that he could disrupt in order to confront the viewer with a new, fresh view of the tree. He did this by twisting the associated elements of the object - in this case the tree - forcing the viewer's reappraisal of the commonplace. This solution was disarmingly simple: 'The tree, as the subject of a problem, became a large leaf the stem of which was a trunk directly planted in the ground. I called it "The giantess" in memory of a poem by Baudelaire' (Magritte, quoted in ed. D. Sylvester, vol. II, loc. cit.). In this way, an integral feature of the tree here becomes its dominant feature, as the tree is completely subsumed by its own leafiness. La géante is the first example of this thematic subject in Magritte's work, although it was an image that he found so effective that it would recur again and again, to various effects, throughout his career.
Magritte was often adamant that his titles had little to do with the contents of a painting: 'The titles of my paintings accompany them like the names attached to objects without illustrating or explaining them' (Magritte, letter to Barnet Hodes, 1957, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 203). Magritte often named pictures after writings he particularly admired, as he claimed with La géante. Nonetheless, vague thematic links can often be perceived between his works and their titles, not least here, where a giant leaf has taken the place of the tree. However, the connections between the title and the subject in Magritte's works are usually of sufficient opacity that they provide more questions than answers. In the poem La géante mentioned by Magritte, Baudelaire imagines himself exploring and roaming over the body of a giantess. The poem is packed with a strange sensuality induced by Baudelaire's descriptions - the language is in part tainted and debauched. This relates strongly to the mingled existential nausea and celebration of the tree in La géante. The vast scale of the leaf relates to Baudelaire's exploration of a vastly magnified feature from life, while the unsettling image also induces a similar sense of the disturbing recognisable unreality of the scene. La géante perfectly encapsulates the quality of Magritte's work that makes 'superreality' a more appropriate translation of surréalisme. He himself wrote that, 'For me, it's not a matter of painting "reality" as though it were readily accessible to me and to others, but of depicting the most ordinary reality in such a way that this immediate reality loses its tame or terrifying character and presents itself with its mystery' (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, ibid., p. 70). Humour and the absurd here mingle in Magritte's unique vision to force the viewer to see the world in a new, more appreciative way.
Magritte deliberately avoided attracting too much attention in his lifetime, and therefore little biographical material of interest exists. However, La géante is linked to several important factors in Magritte's life and career, not only in that the idea was voiced in a letter to Breton, with whom Magritte had sundered links in 1930. Although from their rupture Magritte had insured that the more grounded Belgian Surrealism kept a distance from their French counterparts, a correspondence resumed. Indeed, in 1935, Magritte was amongst the signatories of a tract marking the Surrealists' break with the Communist party, especially after their mistreatment of Breton, and participated in several other international Surrealist projects. For Magritte, who usually avoided overtly political matters in life and in his art, this was a period of surprising political activity.
As well as his political activity, 1935 saw an increase in Magritte's artistic output. This was in part due to the sponsorship of Claude Spaak. Spaak was a playwright, but had also been an active collector of Magritte's paintings for some time. In 1935, he made a semi-formal arrangement to allow Magritte to abandon commercial work and focus fully on his own artistic output. To this end, he provided the artist a monthly stipend, while also guaranteeing the paintings he produced. In addition to this, Spaak actively sought other sponsors for Magritte, and managed to encourage several people to collect his paintings, even some like his father who seem to have shown little interest in the art. Amongst the more active of these collectors was Paul-Henri Spaak, Claude's brother, who already owned La géante the year after it was painted. The Spaaks were thus largely responsible for Magritte's advances in his art during the 1930s, allowing him to concentrate fully on the development of his thought and craft. Many of the most iconic images that recur throughout Magritte's oeuvre first appeared during this amazingly fertile period of his life and career, which saw the germination of much of Magritte's style. La géante is therefore a testimony to the flourishing of Magritte's art and to those who facilitated it.


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