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René Magritte (1898-1967)
René Magritte (1898-1967)
René Magritte (1898-1967)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property of a distinguished private collector
René Magritte (1898-1967)

La découverte du feu

René Magritte (1898-1967)
La découverte du feu
signed ‘magritte’ (lower right)
gouache and watercolor on paper
9 7/8 x 7 5/8 in. (25 x 19.5 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Barnet and Eleanor Cramer Hodes, Chicago (commissioned from the artist, July 1959, and until at least 1993).
Anon. sale, Maître Marc-Arthur Kohn, Cannes, 8 August 2009, lot 558.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Letter from B. Hodes to R. Magritte, 1 July 1959.
Letter from R. Magritte to B. Hodes, 3 July 1959 (erroneously dated 3 June 1959).
D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés, 1918-1967, London, 1994, vol. IV, p. 216, no. 1460 (illustrated).
The Art Institute of Chicago, Magritte, March-May 1993, no. 50.
Andros, Museum of Contemporary Art, Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, Approaching Surrealism, June-September 2012.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, René Magritte, The Fifth Season, May-October 2018, p. 150 (illustrated in color, p. 123, pl. 48).
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Lot Essay

A spectacularly dramatic vision of a tuba engulfed in flames, Lacouverte du feu of 1959 is one of René Magritte’s celebrated series of works depicting burning objects. The incongruous combination of everyday objects set ablaze had first appeared in Magritte’s iconography in 1934 in a gouache entitled L’échelle du feu (Sylvester, no. 1108). Here the artist depicted a trio of quotidian items—a piece of paper, an egg and a key—each of which is alight with flames. The creation of this powerful visual motif was revelatory for Magritte; as he later described, it was akin to “the feeling experienced by the first men who produced a flame by rubbing together two pieces of stone. In my turn, from a piece of paper, an egg and a key, I caused fire to spring forth” (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., op. cit., 1994, p. 12).
Excited by this new and striking pictorial effect, Magritte continued to explore the aesthetic potential of this subject. “You know the drawing in ‘Documents 34’ [no. 1108] with burning objects made of different materials,” he wrote to André Breton in July 1934. “A slightly different solution would be to present a single burning object provided it was made of iron, a key, a sewing-machine or a trumpet, for instance” (quoted in Sylvester, ibid., vol. II, 1994, p. 190). After an oil composition of 1934-1935, also titled L’échelle du feu, which depicts a piece of paper, a chair, and a trumpet, all of which have similarly erupted into violent flames (Sylvester, no. 358), Magritte realized his “solution” in Lacouverte du feu (Sylvester, no. 359), in which the instrument now stands alone, the contrast between flame and metal made all the more dramatic. This final, fully resolved visualization of his initial idea was revisited again a year later in a painting of the same name (Sylvester, no. 393), to which the present work is most closely related. When this 1936 oil was exhibited by Magritte in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, he called it a "tableau objet" (“picture-object”), a category he had invented for an image that could either be hung like a picture upon the wall, or placed on a flat surface like an object.
Magritte’s continuous quest for pictorial “solutions” to various “problems” enabled him to constantly challenge and reconfigure the most ubiquitous and commonplace elements of everyday life. Since 1926, when, awaking from sleep he mistakenly glimpsed an egg instead of a bird in a bird cage, Magritte had sought to reveal the undiscovered yet indissoluble connections—“elective affinities”—between hitherto seemingly unrelated objects. “I became certain that the element to be discovered, the unique feature residing obscurely in each object, was always known to me in advance, but that my knowledge of it was, so to speak, hidden in the depths of my thought… my investigation took the form of trying to find the solution of a problem with three points of reference: the object, the something linked to it in the obscurity of my consciousness and the light into which this something had to be brought” (“La Ligne de vie”, 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen, eds., René Magritte 1898-1967, exh. cat., Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1998, p. 47).
To achieve this, the artist explored affinities between objects: thus the “problem” of the bird was solved by depicting an egg in a cage; the “problem” of the door with a shapeless hole cut through it; the tree, with a leaf-tree. The “problem” of fire was therefore answered, as Magritte visualized in La découverte du feu, by showing an inanimate, supposedly incombustible metal object incongruously set ablaze and miraculously unscathed by the flames. In combining the banal with the extraordinary, Magritte created a vision at once conceivable and yet impossible. In addition to this, the presence of fire—a primal, natural force of destruction, the image of which indicates danger, while at the same time also symbolizing creation and renewal—adds a further layer of meaning to this composition, arousing powerful human instincts in the viewer.
Lacouverte du feu was one of eight gouaches from 1959 that Magritte painted for Chicago collectors Barnet and Eleanor Cramer Hodes (Sylvester, nos. 1460-1467). Hodes had asked the artist for a selection of his quintessential motifs, and as a result, this group included gouache versions of his most renowned works, including La trahison des images, La durée poignardée, La voix du sang and others. Over the course of several years, the Hodes amassed a large and impressive collection of work by the artist, a virtual museum of Magritte’s most important images.

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