RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898 – 1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898 – 1967)
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RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898 – 1967)

Le paysage de Baucis

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898 – 1967)
Le paysage de Baucis
signed ‘Magritte’ (upper right); signed, dated and titled '”LE PAYSAGE DE BAUCIS” Magritte 1966' (on the reverse)
gouache on paper
10 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. (27.2 x 21.1 cm)
Executed in 1966
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, a gift from the artist; their sale, Sotheby's, London, 23 June 1966, lot 38.
Barry Miller, London, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Galleria Galatea, Turin, by whom acquired from the above.
Private collection, Italy, by whom acquired from the above by 1978, and thence by descent; sale, Christie’s, London, 21 June 2011, lot 46.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés, 1918-1967, London, 1994, no. 1590, p. 288 (illustrated).

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Ottavia Marchitelli
Ottavia Marchitelli Senior Specialist, Head of The Art of The Surreal Sale

Lot Essay

Le paysage de Baucis is a rare and important gouache by René Magritte made in 1966 and subsequently donated by the artist to raise funds for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1967—an institution that had, in 1947, been co-founded by the artist’s close friend and fellow Belgian Surrealist, E.L.T. Mesens. The work is one of a small number of highly significant gouaches, all made during the last years of Magritte’s life, that explore the twin themes of disappearance and the void. Le paysage de Baucis is a near-identical gouache version of a famous oil painting of the same name that the artist completed in February 1966, today housed in The Menil Collection in Houston. Also entitled Le paysage de Baucis, it was this oil painting which led Magritte to declare excitedly on completion that he had finally found the solution to the problem of ‘how to paint the emptiness between a hat and a man’s suit without suggesting “the invisible man”’(Letter to A. Bosmans, 19 February 1966; quoted in D. Sylvester and S. Whitfield, eds., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. III, Oil Paintings 1949-67, London, 1993, p. 423).
In 1964 Magritte was asked by his patron Harry Torczyner to paint a self-portrait. He had responded to this request by creating the iconic, but also enigmatic image of a man in a bowler hat whose face is hidden by an apple in the painting Le fils de l’homme, (Sylvester, no. 999; Private collection). Finding this motif of covering the face more of an evasion than a solution however, Magritte became obsessed with solving the mystery of the invisible void or ‘emptiness’ that he saw existing between a man’s hat and his suit. ‘People are apt to say, “the invisible is hidden”,’ Magritte later explained to Guy Mertens. ‘That’s wrong: it’s unknown. The painter doesn’t show it, doesn’t explain it: he evokes it. I don’t need explanations’ (‘Interview with Guy Mertens,’ in Pourquoi pas?, Brussels, 26 May 1966, pp. 93-94).
Le paysage de Baucis marks the culmination of an extensive series of paintings—all made in the wake of Le fils de l’homme—in which Magritte’s famous image of the man in the bowler hat was seen gradually to disappear; first becoming a silhouette or cut-out that either contains or looks out onto a variety of landscapes and then, ultimately, in Le paysage de Baucis and subsequently other variants such as Le pélerin (Sylvester, no. 1043; Private collection), Le chemin de Damas (Sylvester, no. 1042; Private collection) and Le musée du roi (Sylvester, no. 1049; Yokohama Museum of Art), disappearing completely through the depiction of an empty or invisible figure. As Magritte wrote triumphantly to André Bosmans about Le paysage de Baucis: ‘The picture of the emptiness between a hat and a man’s suit is finished: this was certainly one worth painting. I had thought of a title: “The horror of the void,” but discarded it as being too “direct” in favour of a better, I think: Le paysage de Baucis’ (Letter to A. Bosmans, undated, quoted in Sylvester and Whitfield, op cit., p. 423).
As with the painting itself, Magritte was careful with his choice of title to avoid any connection that might relate his ideas of invisibility to those of the ‘Invisible Man’ so immortalized in H. G. Wells’s novel from 1897. As Magritte explained in another letter to Bosmans about Le paysage de Baucis: ‘The picture should be inscribed with a title which prevents an uninteresting interpretation. If The Invisible Man had never been written, no (insoluble) problem would have arisen. An inscription such as, for instance, “The Daughter of Nothingness” could be considered, but to use it would be to reduce the image to the level of an illustration, obviously, although in reality there was no question of illustrating a theme’ (Letter to A. Bosmans, 10 August 1966, quoted in ibid.).
The title of Le paysage de Baucis, which David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield have claimed was suggested to Magritte by François and Evelyn Deknop, certainly avoids any notion of Wells’s “Invisible Man.” Instead, it invokes the mythological figure of Baucis who, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, alongside her husband Philemon, provided shelter and a meagre meal to the gods Zeus and Hermes when they were travelling the land in disguise. The gods, in retribution against all the others in the neighbourhood who had spurned them from their doors, destroyed the entire settlement saving only Baucis and Philemon and allowing them to witness the cataclysm, from which a temple emerged. The notions of disguise, perception, revelation and of the destruction of the landscape all invoked in this tale, can be seen to chime with the strange, partial apparition depicted in Le paysage de Baucis.
Magritte’s solution to the problem of making visible the invisibility of the man in the empty space between his hat and collar was the introduction of the strangely isolated eyes, nose and mouth in such a way that a face would appear in the viewer’s mind. In introducing these elements Magritte was drawing on earlier experiments he had made with the bizarre effects of isolating such features back in the late-1930s, in a series of pictures entitled Le race blanche (Sylvester, nos. 444, 445, and 1130, for example). For Magritte, Le paysage de Baucis marked the culmination of a series of experiments with invisibility that he had been practiced upon the man with the bowler hat ever since Torczyner had asked him to paint a self-portrait. And in this regard it should also be noted that Le paysage de Baucis differs from these famous depictions of the bowler-hatted man in one significant way. Instead of a bowler hat, here Magritte has depicted his ‘invisible’ figure donning a trilby. The trilby, as anyone who knew the artist was well aware, was the type of hat that he himself usually wore. Magritte only ever adopted the iconic bowler—with which both his art and his public image were so associated—for the benefit of photographers.
The oil versions of Le paysage de Baucis along with its subsequent variants Le pélerin and Le chemin de Damas were all first shown together at Magritte’s last ever solo show, held at the Iolas Gallery in Paris in 1966. There, Magritte’s old friend, the Belgian poet, Louis Scutenaire emphasized the artist’s enduring fascination with the void and the disappearance of man presented in these works, writing: ‘The first picture is called Le paysage de Baucis. The title is unchangeable, cannot be replaced by any other. Why? Algebraic brains will imagine that a face consisting only of eyes, nose and mouth in the void is more of a face than fully painted countenances and that it was the tree landscape and the only one that Baucis saw, in her total concentration on her husband perhaps?... Is it not better to think less and to know that the words “Baucis’s landscape,” “The road to Damascus” and “The pilgrim” are each a portrait of “Emptiness”?’ (quoted in ibid., p. 424).
Perhaps because these paintings are among Magritte’s very last works on the theme of the bowler-hatted man that had so punctuated his work ever since the early 1920s, Siegfried Gohr has argued that in their increasingly prominent theme of emptiness and disappearance Magritte has marked also the passing of modernism’s concept of the heroic individual. ‘What Magritte has actually done in these paintings,’ Gohr has written, ‘is to liberate the figure from its earlier presence and heroic stance… [he has] said farewell to the metaphysical subject of modernity, which had defined itself aesthetically rather than, as previously, in an idealistic, philosophical sense. Its disappearance would appear logical in view of an altered historical situation which no longer expected or demanded tasks of the individual, as had been done by heroic modernism in its struggle for recognition and the achievement of its goals… Might Magritte have been thinking similar to Michel Foucault?’ (Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, Antwerp, 2017, p. 287).
Foucault’s famous treatise, Les mots et les choses, also completed in 1966, ends with the following analogy: ‘As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility ...were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea’ (The Order of Things, London, 2002, p. 422).

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