RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE NEW YORK COLLECTION
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

La méditation

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
La méditation
signed 'Magritte' (lower left); inscribed '"LA MEDITATION"' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
19 7⁄8 x 25 5⁄8 in. (50.5 x 65 cm.)
Painted in 1936
Edward James, West Dean, West Sussex, by whom probably acquired from The London Gallery in 1937.
The Edward James Foundation, West Dean, West Sussex; sale, Christie's, New York, 13 November 1984, lot 148.
Private collection, New York, by whom acquired at the above sale.
L. Scutenaire, Magritte, Antwerp, 1948, pl. 7 (illustrated).
H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, no. 345, n.p. (illustrated; dated '1937' and with incorrect dimensions).
J.J. Spector, 'Magritte's La lampe philosophique: A Study of Word and Image in Surrealism', in Dada/Surrealism, vol. 7, New York, 1 January 1977, pp. 122, 125 & 127 (dated '1937').
D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, London, 1993, no. 410, p. 225 (image inverted; illustrated correctly vol. V, p. 30).
Exh. cat., René Magritte, 1948: La période vache, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2008, p. 135 (illustrated fig. III.17, p. 129).
The Hague, Huize Esher Surrey, René Magritte, November - December 1936, no. 10.
London, The London Gallery, Pictures by Young Belgian Artists, January - February 1937, no. 19.
Durham, Dunelt House, Durham Surrealist Festival, November - December 1968, no. 2, p. 14.
London, Tate Gallery, Magritte, February - March 1969, no. 54.
Manchester, City Art Gallery, Surrealist Pictures from the Edward James Collection, May - June 1969, no. 19 (dated '1937'); this Arts Council of Great Britain exhibition later travelled to Birmingham, City Art Museum and Gallery, June - July 1969; Norwich, Norwich Castle Museum, August - September 1969; Hull, Ferrens Art Gallery, September - October 1969; Bath, Holburne of Menstrie Museum, October - November 1969; Plymouth, City Museum of Art, November - December 1969.
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Magritte, October - November 1973, no. 32, p. 40 (illustrated p. 80; dated '1937' and with incorrect dimensions).
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, The Edward James Collection: Dalí, Magritte and Other Surrealists, August - September 1976, no. 35, p. 9 (dated '1937'; with incorrect dimensions).
London, The Hayward Gallery, Magritte, May - August 1992, no. 73, n.p. (illustrated; with incorrect dimensions); this exhibition later travelled to New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, September - November 1992.
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, René Magritte, March - June 1998, no. 113, p. 129 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

In February 1937, René Magritte arrived in London to begin work on a commission of three major paintings for the house at 35 Wimpole Street belonging to Edward James, an eccentric English collector and now legendary patron of Surrealism, whose collection was to grow to include several of Magritte’s finest creations. In the mid-1930s Magritte was at the very height of his powers and James acquired a number of masterpieces from the Belgian painter during this extraordinary period of creativity: in addition to the present painting, La méditation of 1936, his renowned collection included Le modèle rouge, (Sylvester, no. 428; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), Au seuil de la liberté (Sylvester, no. 430) and La durée poignardée (Sylvester, no. 460), both now in the Art Institute of Chicago. Magritte also created two memorable portraits of James, notable for also being faceless: Le principe du plaisir (Sylvester, no. 443) and La reproduction interdite (Sylvester, no. 436) now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Magritte and James had first met each other in Paris in the summer of 1936 not long after James had encountered Magritte’s work at London’s famous International Surrealist Exhibition, held at the New Burlington Galleries that same year. Struck by the innate mystery of the Belgian painter’s compositions, James had immediately started to collect Magritte’s work. La méditation – a serene, Magrittian subversion of a nocturnal seascape – had been painted during this same period (sometime between May and October 1936) and was among the very first of Magritte’s paintings that James acquired.

It is thought that James probably bought this painting in January 1937 from the London Gallery, at an exhibition of young Belgian artists organised by Magritte’s friend E.L.T. Mesens shortly before the artist himself arrived in the city. Evidently impressed by the picture, James was also later to acquire a similarly-themed gouache by Magritte, La retour à la nature of 1938-39 (Sylvester, no. 1148), before soon afterwards notifying the artist that he now believed he had amassed ‘a large enough proportion’ of the artist’s work not to need to buy any more (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, London, 1992, p. 246). Although this was to mark the end of a short-lived but extraordinarily productive partnership between Magritte and his English patron, James would continue to remain a friend to the artist championing his work and helping to promote it in America. In 1940, James also sought to help Magritte escape possible persecution from the Nazis by providing him with a plane ticket out of Europe, via Lisbon, soon after the invasion of Belgium and France.

As a subtle inversion of the traditional Romantic subject of a moonlit seascape, La méditation is a work that fits perfectly within the canon of subversive Magritte masterpieces collected by Edward James. Here, the light of the moon in the night sky has been replaced by that of a procession of three, strangely animated, candles crawling across the beach like glow-worms in the lower half of the canvas. Painted in the summer of 1936, this work, like Magritte’s portrait of James, Le principe du plaisir, is both a clever pictorial reversal of the conventional roles that light and darkness play in a painting and one of a group of works from this period that reflect the artist’s concern with what he was later to define as finding an ‘elective affinity’ between objects.

Magritte had first been made aware of this hidden poetry between objects by a dream he had had in 1932 in which he saw an egg in a birdcage. This event awoke him to the realisation of ‘an astonishing poetic secret’ provoked by ‘the affinity’ between the egg and, the cage and, by 1936, Magritte had begun to seek out similar hidden connections between other objects in the hope of producing similarly ‘poetic’, revelatory shocks of recognition (Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, lecture given in Antwerp on 20th November 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., exh. cat., Magritte Centenary Exhibition, Brussels, 1998, p. 47).

As A. J. Hammacher, writing about La méditation has indicated, ‘recollections of dripping candles probably led [Magritte] to discover their affinity with worms, as well as with reptiles, snails, wormlike eruptions in the sand, glow worms and phosphorescent light on the water’ (René Magritte, London, 1974, p. 116). Such ‘affinities’ between a candle and its drips or between the soft pliability of wax and the firm, erect, form of an upright candle also apply to a series of images that Magritte had made of his most iconic image: the pipe. In an anticipation of La méditation, for instance, Magritte’s 1928 painting Les pipes amoureuses de la lune (Sylvester, no. 204) is a work that translates the image of three pipes ‘enamoured of the moon’ into soft, floating, worm-like creatures that appear to dance in front of a full moon rising above a sea or a lake. Another precedent for La méditation is Magritte’s 1936 painting entitled La lampe philosophique (The Philosophical Lamp) (Sylvester, no. 399) which marks the first appearance in his work of the soft, worm-like candle. In this work, such a candle is shown illuminating an apparent self-image of Magritte smoking his pipe. Only here, the artist’s nose has also become soft; melting and morphing into the also elongated, worm-like form of his pipe.

The fluidity and volatility displayed here between supposedly ephemeral light and the firm, solidity of objects has once again been broken down and subverted. There is also, as the art historian Jack Spector has pointed out, an interesting affinity between the titles of La lampe philosophique and La méditation, in their referencing both philosophy and meditation, that suggests an apparent interconnection between the idea of light and thought (J. Spector. ‘Magritte’s La Lampe philosophique: A Study of Word and Image in Surrealism’, Dada/Surrealism, Volume 7, Iowa, 1977, pp. 121-129). Light, as Magritte recalled, was, for him at least, an ephemeral phenomenon wholly dependent upon the world of objects for its own existence. Referring to his 1933 painting of a candle and a plaster-cast bust of a female torso, to which he had given the title La lumière des coincidences (The Light of coincidence) (Sylvester, no. 352), Magritte wrote, ‘as regards light, I reflected that while it has the power to make objects visible, its existence is manifest only on condition that it is accepted by objects. But for matter, light would be invisible. This is made obvious, I think, in La lumière des coincidences [The Light of Coincidence] where an ordinary object, a female torso, is lit by a candle. In this case, it seems that the object illuminated itself gives life to light’ (quoted in D. Sylvester and S. Whitfield, (eds.), René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings, London, 1994, p. 185).

Such a simple reversal of the conventional way of looking at light also applies to La méditation – a painting in which Magritte has juxtaposed interior and exterior light in the form of candles setting out like reptilian explorers across a nocturnal landscape that they in turn illuminate and effectively bring into being. Such exploration of the idea of depicting light and darkness simultaneously within one image is also a move that directly anticipates the similar night/day duality of his later L’Empire des lumières pictures of the 1950s.

Later translated, for example, into the image of a candle whose flame is also that of a crescent moon passing across its peak or, as in the L’Empire des lumières paintings into a solitary streetlamp illuminating a nocturnal landscape above which a daylight sky shines, all these works are similar ‘mediations’ upon the mystery of light. As Magritte explained about the thinking that gave rise to the works he called ‘The Dominion of Light’, ‘what is represented ... are the things I thought of, to be precise, a nocturnal landscape and a skyscape such as can be seen in broad daylight. The landscape suggests night and the skyscape day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to delight us. I call this power “poetry”. The reason why I believe the evocation to have this poetic power is, amongst other things, because I have always felt the greatest interest in night and day, without however, having any preference for one or the other’ (Magritte, commentary on L’Empire des lumières written for the 1956 television programme published in facsimile in Peintures de l’Imaginaire: symbolistes et surrealistes belges, exh. cat. Paris, 1972, p. 118).

La méditation is a work that marks the first stirrings of this idea in Magritte’s work. Strangely animalistic, even somewhat macabre in the way in which its wriggling candles are seen to scuttle across the shoreline of this otherwise peaceful and serene seascape, there is a will-o’-the-wisp quality to these glow-worm-like candles that invokes the mood of 19th Century Romanticism at the same time that it also undermines this tradition. Similarly, the almost religious-like procession of these three, animated candles setting out into the night also lends this ‘meditation’ an almost formal sense of reverence reminiscent of biblical tales about wise and foolish virgins.

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