RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

Le masque de la foudre

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
Le masque de la foudre
signed 'Magritte' (lower left)
oil on canvas
31 1/2 x 25 5/8 (80.2 x 65.1 cm.)
Painted in 1965 or 1966
Private collection, Brussels, by whom acquired directly from the artist in 1966.
Private collection, Brussels, by descent from the above; sale, Christie's, London, The Art of the Surreal, 6 February 2001, lot 80.
Private collection, Europe, by whom acquired at the above sale and thence by descent.
R. Passeron, René Magritte, Paris, 1970, p. 47 (illustrated; dated '1967').
E. Calas, 'Magritte's inaccessible woman', in Colóquio: artes, no. 30, Lisbon, December 1976, p. 29 (dated '1961').
G. Mazzotta, ed., Da Magritte a Magritte, exh. cat., Palazzo Forti, Verona, 1991, p. 258 (illustrated; dated '1967').
D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-1967, London, 1993, no. 1031, p. 423 (illustrated).
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Ottavia Marchitelli
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Lot Essay

In Le masque de la foudre, René Magritte plunges the viewer into the world of visual poetry and mystery for which he remains so renowned. United through their similar pink tones are a cloud, a female nude and that most Magrittean of objects – a pipe. This work, painted in 1965-66, brings together these iconic elements yet adds a twist that forces us to reappraise them, and by extension the world around us. Magritte’s paintings are visions, not dreams: they mine resonances that will reveal the magic and mystery of the everyday objects and subjects that occupy our own lives. To this end, the picture uses a deliberately pared-back iconography: its three main items are presented against a calm seascape, a choice that reveals Magritte’s deft ability to use an expressive economy of means, recalling his own earlier career in advertising. By tapping into his own iconography, melding it with his visual skills, he has created a composition that has an impressive impact.
In Le masque de la foudre, Magritte has created a mysterious juxtaposition of seemingly ordinary objects. However, they are united through their palette, which is a modulated skin-like tone of pink. When it comes to the cloud floating in the background, this pink can be seen as reminiscent of sunlight at dusk or dawn, that territory of artists and poets alike. However, the nude and the pipe have also been captured in the same tones. In them, the pink is more clearly redolent of flesh. The pipe, floating front and centre in the composition, has thus been transformed into a levitating mass that hovers between the inanimate and the animate.
Together, the trio of objects represent three of the traditional genres within painting – landscape, still-life and the classical nude. By aligning them within a single composition, Magritte appears to boldly subvert the accepted notion of a hierarchy of subjects within art. However, it was the quotidian nature of his chosen objects that truly appealed to his vision – around the time that Le masque de la foudre was painted, Magritte told an interviewer that: ‘I have a very limited vocabulary: nothing but ordinary, familiar things. What is “extraordinary” is the connection between them... These strange unions, it’s inspiration that provokes them. Suddenly, an image arises in me. My role is to describe it, without being fanciful, on my canvas’ (R. Magritte, Selected Writings, J. Levy (trans.), Richmond, 2016, p. 214).
In Le masque de la foudre, Magritte has taken these deceptively simple subjects – a cloud, a woman, a pipe – and presented them together in such a way that they conjure an atmosphere redolent with mystery. However, these items themselves are loaded with implication through their long histories within Magritte’s oeuvre. First and foremost is the pipe itself, which recalls Magritte’s iconic, or anti-iconic, 1929 masterpiece La trahison des images, which has been in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 1978. In that work, Magritte painted a pipe with trompe-l’oeil verisimilitude, but provocatively underneath it emblazoned the words: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’). In this way, Magritte punctured the entire suspension of disbelief incorporated in the act of painting. His incontrovertible statement about the represented pipe illustrated the fiction intrinsic to painting. In Le masque de la foudre, Magritte pushes the tension regarding representation within a work of art even further by juxtaposing his flesh-pipe with the figure of a statue-like woman itself rendered in near-uniform flesh-tones.
This was a theme that itself had its own heritage within Magritte’s oeuvre. In 1946, Magritte had painted Les fleurs du mal in which a nude female figure is shown facing the viewer, one hand placed on a rock and the other holding a rose. In that painting, the female figure is painted in a uniform flesh tone, as is the case in Le masque de la foudre. Writing of that earlier picture, Magritte explained that it ‘was the unpredictable image of a statue made of flesh, a woman entirely made of flesh’ (R. Magritte quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield and M. Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. II, London, 1993, p. 366). In Le masque de la foudre, Magritte has gone further, representing statue, pipe and cloud as all united in their fleshly matter.
By creating this scene, Magritte has tapped into the legacy of one of the artists for whom he professed great admiration, Giorgio de Chirico. In L’incertitude du poète of 1913, now in the collection of the Tate, London, De Chirico showed a classical torso against a mysterious backdrop comprising a piazza with a train travelling in the distance; next to the torso is a bunch of bananas. The painting, which was formerly owned by Magritte’s friend Paul Eluard, evokes a spirit of mystery in part by the contrast between the timeless, limbless statue, the fresh fruit and the train in the background. In Le masque de la foudre, a germane effect is achieved by Magritte by his unifying the objects depicted in their flesh tones—the contrast between flesh, stone, pipe and cloud is removed, yet in that removal is underscored. Even the steam puffing from De Chirico’s train, contrasting with the bananas and the sculpture, prefigures Le masque de la foudre with its triumvirate of cloud, flesh and pipe. Similarly, Magritte’s early Surrealist picture Souvenir de voyage, now in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, acts as a bridge, featuring a flesh-like fragmentary torso and other objects against a mysterious background.
In Le masque de la foudre, the flesh-sculpture becomes the descendant of Galatea from the classical tale of Pygmalion. In that story, Pygmalion had created a sculpture that embodied the most perfect aspects of female beauty, and then fell in love with his own creation, naming it Galatea. According to Ovid, the sculpture was eventually brought to life by Aphrodite. This was a myth that Magritte referenced in his 1928 work, La tentative de l’impossible, in which the artist showed himself creating a woman brushstroke by brushstroke, while holding his palette and brush. In Le masque de la foudre the female figure appears to occupy a liminal state between the inert and the alive, between sculpture and woman, stone and flesh, with the eyes and hair both comprising the same material as the skin itself. As in La trahison des images, Magritte was challenging the concept of representation and making it a theme in its own right, highlighting its own inherent mystery.
Le masque de la foudre can be seen to echo some of the notions of the ‘Uncanny’ explored by Sigmund Freud in his essay on the subject. Freud explored the way that concepts of the Heimlich, the homely or familiar, in German also enveloped some of those encapsulated by the ‘uncanny’, or Unheimlich (S. Freud, The ‘Uncanny’, in Imago, Bd. V, 1919). This sculpture-woman is familiar yet, through a simple transformation, becomes impossible and unknowable. Occupying the mysterious status of half-life as a flesh statue, she recalls the character of Olympia created by E.T.A. Hoffmann in his tale, The Sandman, which itself featured so much in Freud’s essay. The Sandman later became the basis for the first section of the opera by Jacques Offenbach, Les contes d’Hoffmann. In that tale, the protagonist falls in love with Olympia, the daughter of his neighbour, who in time is revealed to be an automaton.
Despite Offenbach’s death decades earlier, his operas had Surreal credentials. While the great central figure of international Surrealism, André Breton, was self-confessedly not an enthusiast for music, he nonetheless made an exception for Offenbach, specifically acquiring a gramophone player to listen to his works (J. C. Rogers, Resonant Recoveries: French Music and Trauma between the Wars, Oxford, 2021, p. 282). The ‘character’ of Olympia was of central importance to another Surrealist of Magritte’s acquaintance, Hans Bellmer, whose own dolls were inspired by seeing Offenbach’s opera in the early 1930s. Bellmer pushed the notion of the Uncanny to extremes with his bound figures, often photographed with missing or substitute limbs and appendages. Looking at Le masque de la foudre, Magritte can be seen to have conjured a less explicit yet nonetheless shocking image that similarly mines the Uncanny for effect.
In Le masque de la foudre, Magritte adds to the sexual dimension so dominant in Bellmer’s work by presenting the female figure in a manner that recalls another of his earlier works, La connaissance naturelle of 1941. In that painting, as here, the woman’s hair has been depicted as flowing so long that it allows Magritte to invoke yet another earlier composition, Le viol of 1934, now in the Menil Collection Houston, in which a woman’s face is made up of her breasts and sex. In La connaissance naturelle and Le masque de la foudre, the more naturalistic depiction of the woman includes this body-face as well. When Magritte painted La connaissance naturelle in 1941, he explained the development of this theme in a letter to Claude Spaak: ‘It seems to me that in this way I am expressing what was most shattering in “The rape” with the same forms as those in nature. The reading becomes internal’ (R. Magritte quoted in ibid., p. 288).
Le viol in turn had been Magritte’s answer to the ‘problem’ of woman as a theme, from a period when he had been rigorously investigating the mysteries inherent in aspects of the world around us. Magritte’s vision in Le viol presents a sexualised face within a landscape, a distillation of the theme of the nude and a provocative probing of notions of female beauty. In La connaissance naturelle and Le masque de la foudre, he has allowed this theme to evolve in such a way that it is more classicised, more directly figurative—and yet because of this, all the more subversive. Indeed, the fact that the sculpture-like figure in Le masque de la foudre is presented in such a way that it recalls classical statuary or the sculptures of Aristide Maillol further generates an internal tension between the orthodoxy of the artistic canon and the revolutionary dimensions of Surrealism, and of Magritte’s art in particular. Again, it is by mining the familiar that Magritte evokes the innate and immense mystery of existence, forcing his viewers to reconsider all that surrounds them.

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