René Magritte (1898-1967)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more ABSTRACTION BEYOND BORDERS: WORKS FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTIONFrom Paris to Munich, Berlin, Milan and Hanover, in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, a number of artists created art that radically differed from those of their predecessors. Working across Europe, these pioneering provocateurs, radicals and trailblazers – Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, František Kupka, to name just a few – shunned the last vestiges of illusionism to instead create unprecedented works with no visible, recognisable or definable subject matter. Liberating colour, line and form from their centuries-old descriptive role, they overturned pictorial tradition, embarking on an abstract adventure that would come to define art of the Twentieth Century. Crossing geographical boundaries, encompassing a variety of media, and often blurring traditional distinctions of painting and sculpture, abstraction spread with an extraordinary speed, transforming artistic practice forever. From the initial steps towards a new artistic language, to the paradigmatic embodiment of this concept, this diverse group of works embodies this varied, experimental and groundbreaking path of abstraction, demonstrating the variety of ways that artists across the globe embraced this radical practice. Braque’s cubist composition, Cartes et cornet à dés presents the origin of this move towards a new, non-representational artistic language. Along with Picasso – the pair, ‘like mountain-climbers roped together’, as Braque recalled of this frenzied period of seismic innovation – the artist undermined conventional notions of perspective, opening the door to a whole new way of depicting the world. As rebellious as the cubists’ rejection of the centuries-old rules of representation, Picabia’s playful collage Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) uses the very materials of art making to parody the mimetic traditions of art, creating a semi-abstract play of colour and line. Far removed from any trace of the recognisable world, Kurt Schwitters’ rare Merz relief, Das Richard-Freitag-Bild dates from the height of his involvement with the International Constructivist movement. It was executed during a period when he was codifying Merz – the one-man art movement that he created in 1919 – into a utopian Constructivist language of form, taking the deconstruction of Dada and combining it with the aims of Constructivism. Following the same aesthetic, Georges Vantongerloo’s perfectly composed De Stijl composition embodies the tenets of geometric abstraction. In addition, Kupka, one of the leading pioneers of non-representational abstraction, is represented in this collection with a rare composition entitled Series C, III, Elevation, a work that marries his elegant abstract idiom with the deeper, spiritual dimension that was often the source of his abstractions. By contrast, Magritte, an artist whose unique form of Surrealism serves as the very antithesis to the development of non-representational abstraction, is represented in this group with an important early painting, Les signes du soir. A pictorial trompe l’oeil riddle, with this painting Magritte confuses, undermines and questions the entire nature of representational painting, paving the way for the conceptual art that dominated artistic production of the post-war era. From the purely formal – Schwitters and Vantongerloo – to the spiritual, mystic or surreal – Kupka, Jawlensky, Magritte and Picasso, this collection, assembled with the eye of an aesthete, encapsulates the multi-faceted nature and pioneering spirit of modernist abstraction throughout the Twentieth Century. Their curiosity, daring eclecticism and pioneering spirit of exploration nearly 100 years ago paved the way for artists and collectors today.
René Magritte (1898-1967)

Les signes du soir

René Magritte (1898-1967)
Les signes du soir
signed 'Magritte' (lower left); signed and inscribed 'Magritte "Les signes du soir"' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
29 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. (75 x 64.7 cm.)
Painted in 1926
Galerie l'Epoque, Brussels.
Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, Brussels, by whom acquired from the above on 22 February 1929.
Claude Spaak, Brussels & Paris, a gift from the above, by 1933 until at least 1977.
Galerie Brusberg, Hannover.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1978.
P.-G. Van Hecke, 'René Magritte, peintre de la pensée abstraite', in Sélection, March 1927, p. 453 (illustrated).
P. Waldberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, p. 341 (illustrated p. 80).
P. Roberts-Jones, 'Les poèmes visibles de René Magritte', in Bulletin des Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, no. 1 & 2, Brussels, 1968, no. 19, p. 76 (illustrated).
J. Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972 no. 189, p. 158 (illustrated).
H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, no. 135, p. 267 (illustrated p. 93).
R. Calvocoressi, Magritte, Oxford, 1984, no. 5, n.p. & p. 29 (illustrated n.p.).
D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. I, Oil Paintings, 1916-1930, London, 1992, no. 100, p. 182 (illustrated).
S. Levy, Decoding Magritte, Bristol, 2015, p. 59 (illustrated p. 58).
Brussels, Galerie Le Centaure, Exposition Magritte, April - May 1927, no. 13, n.p.
Brussels, Galerie Georges Giroux, Exposition de quelques artistes wallons, March - April 1931, no. 84, n.p.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Guiette, Magritte, Picard, December 1931 - January 1932, no. 26, n.p.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, René Magritte, May - June 1933, no. 7, n.p.
New York, Julien Levy Gallery, Exhibition Surrealist, Rene Magritte, January 1936, no. 12, n.p..
Paris, Galerie Beaux-Arts, Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, January - February 1938, no. 104.
Knokke, Casino Communal, Veme Festival Belge d'Été, Expositions René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, August 1952, no. 2, n.p.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, dertien belgische schilders, October - November 1952, no. 62, n.p. (titled 'de tekens van den avond').
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, René Magritte, May - June 1954, no. 2, p. 21 (illustrated).
Venice, XXVIIeme Biennale de Venise, Le fantastique dans l'art Belge, de Bosch à Magritte, June 1954, p. 62, n.p.
Bordeaux, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Bosch, Goya et le fantastique, May - July 1957, no. 313, p. 111.
Knokke, Casino Communal, XVeme Festival Belge d'Été, L'oeuvre de René Magritte, July - August 1962, no. 9, p. 43 (illustrated n.p.).
London, Tate Gallery, Magritte, February - April 1969, no. 1 (illustrated p. 46); this exhibition later travelled to Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, René Magritte, May - June 1969, no. 4, p. 71 (illustrated p. 84); and Zurich, Kunsthaus, June - July 1969.
Bourges, Maison de la Culture, magritte, delvaux, gnoli, le choix d'un amateur, June - October 1972, no. 1 (illustrated n.p.).
Paris, Galerie Arts/Contacts, La Collection Claude Spaak, October - November 1972, no. 1, n.p. (illustrated n.p.).
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Magritte: Retrospective Loan Exhibition, October - November 1973, no. 3, p. 34 (illustrated p. 53).
New York, The New York Cultural Centre, Painters of the Mind's Eye: Belgian Symbolists and Surrealists, January - March 1974, no. 91, p. 120 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, April - May 1974.
Bordeaux, Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains de Bordeaux, Magritte, May - July 1977, p. 9.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Rétrospective Magritte, October - December 1978, no. 20, n.p. (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, January - April 1979.
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Lot Essay

‘Our gaze always wants to penetrate further so as to see at last the object, the reason for our existence’ -René Magritte

A rare, early painting by René Magritte, Les signes du soir (‘The signs of evening’) is among the first to introduce one of the most beguiling, complex and fundamental themes of the artist’s work: the notion of a picture within a picture. Painted in 1926, this work occupies a historic place within Magritte’s oeuvre, included both in the artist’s first, breakthrough one-man show, and featured in the first significant article dedicated to his work, written by Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, both of which took place in 1927. With its clear, crisp hyper realist execution, and its compelling subject that plays upon the conceptual ideas of artifice, illusion and representation, Les signes du soir serves as a visual manifesto of the artist’s unique form of Surrealism.

Here, Magritte presents us with a strange amalgamation of disparate landscape scenes. Against a softly gradated, twilight sky, the dark silhouettes of a mountain range serve as the seeming backdrop of the painting. In the immediate foreground, a ball rests atop a corrugated stage-like platform, placed just in front of a framed painting whose canvas has been ripped to reveal yet another landscape behind. Which is the ‘real’ landscape or subject of this work, the viewer is left to wonder? Yet, this is precisely what Magritte sought to expose through his art. A painting never presents a ‘real’ image, but rather, it is a flat, fictional artifice purporting to show reality. By playing on this paradoxical concept of representation, Magritte constructed a universe of juxtapositions and seemingly impossible yet subtly linked visual contradictions, revealing to the viewer the mystery that can exist in front of their very eyes. A pictorial trompe l’oeil riddle, with this painting Magritte confuses, undermines and questions the entire nature of representational painting.

A reflection of its importance within Magritte’s career, Les signes du soir was one of a small group of paintings that the artist created in the run up to his first major exhibition which was held at the Galerie Le Centaure, Brussels, in the spring of 1927. Launching Magritte’s reputation as Belgium’s leading Surrealist artist, this show comprised of 49 paintings and 12 papier-collés, all of which had been completed throughout 1926. With Les signes du soir and the accompanying works, Magritte presented to the public for the first time his newly forged Surrealist mode of painting, taking the everyday world and presenting it in a realistic style so as to upend conventional ways of seeing. The artist later recalled that this 1927 show was, ‘my first exhibition that truly represented what I consider valuable in my work’ (Magritte, quoted in A. Umland, ed., Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, exh. cat., New York, 2013, p. 232).

Originally owned by Paul-Gustave Van Hecke’s Galerie L’Epoque, Les signes du soir was, along with many other works of Magritte, purchased in 1929 by one of his closest friends and most loyal supporters, the Surrealist artist and writer E.L.T. Mesens. A few years later, this painting was included in an exhibition at the Galerie Georges Giroux which was visited by the Belgian writer, Claude Spaak. This was the first occasion that Spaak, who would later become Magritte’s leading patron and close friend, had seen the work of the artist. Soon after the show, Mesens gave this painting to Spaak, making it the very first work of the artist that he owned. While it remained in his collection for more than forty years, it was included in some of the landmark exhibitions of the artist, including in 1936, the first monographic exhibition of the artist held in the USA, at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, and in 1938, at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Galerie Beaux-Art, Paris.

Alongside many of the artist’s famed early works such as L’assassin menacé (The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Sylvester, no. 137), the Galerie Le Centaure exhibition also included three paintings that are subtly related to Les signes du soir, L’oasis (lot 22, Sylvester, no. 95), Les fleurs du voyage (Sylvester, no. 96) and Le parc du vautour (Sylvester, no. 97). Each of these paintings incorporate the same sparse and expansive, stage-like landscape, populated by the same solitary type of tree. With a similar undulating black mountain range in the background, Le parc du vautour is also reminiscent of the present work. This imposing backdrop is said to have been inspired, whether by chance or consciously, by the slagheaps in Hainaut, the southern part of Belgium where Magritte had grown up.

The predominant subject of Les signes du soir is the playful, seemingly impossible ‘picture-within-picture’ motif. While Magritte was exploring this theme in other works of this time – the Menil Foundation’s Nocturne or the Centre Georges Pompidou’s Souvenir de voyage, for example – the present work presents, in the words of David Sylvester, ‘a highly sophisticated variation’ of this concept (D. Sylvester & S. Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, Antwerp, 1992, p. 182). Never before had Magritte so flagrantly and provocatively undermined conventional notions of pictorial space, distorting depth and fields of vision. The canvas of the depicted painting has been ripped, causing it to roll back into the elegant scroll-like formation that is rarely seen within Magritte’s oeuvre (he would later use flame to achieve the same effect, see Sylvester, no. 509). The landscape that is revealed behind the destroyed canvas is clearly incongruous with that which serves as the backdrop of the scene, yet, the smooth spheres that appear in this vista are the same as that which is placed in the immediate foreground of the main painting. It is as if one of these balls – a motif also
immediately reminiscent of Magritte’s artistic hero, Giorgio de Chirico’s images – has rolled out of the framed fictional landscape into the ‘real’ landscape of the work. This motif links these two disparate spaces, heightening the overall spatial ambiguity that comprises this enigmatic scene.

It was this preoccupation with the nature of representation that would become central to Magritte’s work, serving as the basis for some of his greatest and most iconic paintings. A few years after he painted Les signes du soir, he returned to this concept in La belle captive of 1931 (Sylvester, no. 342) and the 1933 masterpiece, La condition humaine (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). Here, a painting stands upon an easel in front of a window. In contrast to the present work, the same landscape appears both on the painted canvas, and in the view outside, beyond the window, forcing the viewer to consider the relationship between the interior and exterior world. Yet, both works question which image is real and which is fictional or imagined. Magritte explained the thought process behind La condition humaine, and in many ways, his explanation can likewise be applied to the present work: ‘In front of a window seen from the inside of a room, I placed a picture representing exactly the section of landscape hidden by the picture. The tree represented in the picture therefore concealed the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room in the picture and, at the same time, conceptually outside in the real landscape. This is how we see the world, we see it outside ourselves and yet the only representation we have of it is inside us’ (Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, lecture given in Antwerp on 20 November 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., Magritte Centenary Exhibition, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 47). With Les signes du soir, and with many of the paintings that followed throughout the rest of his prolific career, Magritte has revelled in the ambiguity that exists between a real image, the viewer’s mental image of it, and then the painted representation of it. In his exploration of the very nature of representation, Magritte followed in the path of the pioneering philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic writings. Just as Wittgenstein sought to demonstrate the arbitrary nature with which words are attached to objects and their meaning, so Magritte would in his art, particularly in his word paintings begun in the late 1920s, play with the ambiguity of the object, its painted representation, and the viewer’s own image of it; all the while unpicking and playing with notions of language, signs and meanings.

Magritte’s own words spoken later in his life seem strangely apt when thinking about Les signes du soir. When plagued by critics or interviewers trying to shed light on the hidden meanings of his paintings, Magritte resolutely denounced such interpretations, stating, ‘There is nothing “behind” this image. (Behind the paint of the painting there is the canvas. Behind the canvas there is a wall, behind the wall there is…etc. Visible things always hide other visible things. But a visible image hides nothing)’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, p. 408). Yet, as this painting suggests, the painted image can take on infinite forms, proving itself never to be entirely knowable. Within the painting there is another painting, behind which there appears to be another painting, and who knows what may lie beyond that. With Les signes du soir, Magritte shows us that the possibilities of this mode of imagery are endless, mysterious and most importantly, unfathomable.

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