RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

La magie noire

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
La magie noire
signed ‘Magritte’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
28 ¾ x 21 ¼ in. (73 x 54 cm.)
Painted in 1942
M. Ducrocq, Belgium.
Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, by whom acquired from the above.
Private collection, United States, by whom acquired from the above in 1981.
James Goodman Gallery, New York.
Galerie Brusberg, Berlin, by whom acquired from the above, circa 1994.
Private collection, Italy, by whom acquired from the above in the late 1990s; sale, Christie's, London, 28 February 2017, lot 114.
Private collection, London, by whom acquired at the above sale.
D. Sylvester & S. Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, London, 1993, no. app. 72, p. 450.
D. Sylvester, S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. V, Supplement, London, 1997, no. 508a, p. 33 (illustrated).
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, Magritte, June - October 1996, no. 39, p. 130 (illustrated; dated 'about 1936-1942').
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, René Magritte: Die Kunst der Konversation, November 1996 - March 1997, no. 19, p. 253 (illustrated p. 105; dated '1936/40').
Arezzo, Museo Civico d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Da Picasso a Botero: Capolavori dell'arte del Novecento, March - June 2004, p. 395 (illustrated p. 212).

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

Lot Essay

Framed by an opulent red curtain, a nude woman stands in front of a tranquil seascape, holding a white rose in her hand as she stares impassively out of the picture plane in René Magritte’s beguiling La magie noire. It is immediately clear that a mysterious metamorphosis has taken place in the figure of the woman: statuesque and motionless, her body has morphed from flesh to air, the pale pink skin tones of her legs and torso transforming into the same pastel blue hue of the sky that stretches endlessly behind her. In this way, the female figure appears as a strange and impossible statue; both tangible and transparent, her head and bust seemingly carved out of the sky itself. ‘In my paintings, I showed objects situated in places where they are never actually encountered,’ Magritte once said. ‘That is to satisfy what is in most people a real if not conscious desire. Does not the ordinary painter try, within the limits set for him, to upset the order according to which he customarily sees objects arranged?’ (quoted in P. Waldberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, p. 116).
One of Magritte’s most recognisable motifs, La magie noire, painted in 1942, is an image of strange juxtapositions and unexpected poeticism. It encapsulates Georges Bataille’s description of the artist’s work when he wrote that it offers, ‘the creation of a palpable reality whereby the ordinary world is modified in response to the desire for the marvellous, for the prodigious, a desire implicit in the very essence of the human being’ (quoted in ibid., pp. 156-157).
Magritte had first explored the subject of La magie noire in 1934, in an oil painting of the same name (Sylvester, no. 355). In this painting, a similar nude woman is framed by a jagged wall of an interior in front of a tranquil seascape, with a dove perched upon her shoulder. Just a few months before he painted this first iteration of the magie noire theme, Magritte had participated in an exhibition, Le nu dans l’art vivant, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Bringing together one hundred paintings and sculptures on the theme of the nude by artists of the nineteenth and twentieth century, it is thought that this show, in which Magritte also exhibited three works, prompted a renewed exploration on the female nude in his work. Confronted with an array of conceptions on this genre, Magritte was said to have been particularly inspired by Maillol’s classicising treatment of the nude in sculpture. He subsequently painted La magie noire as well as Le Viol (Sylvester, no. 356), both of which he included in Minotaure, an exhibition organised to celebrate the first anniversary of the Surrealist periodical of the same name, which opened a few months later, in May of the same year in Brussels.
With La magie noire, Magritte created a new, Surrealist conception of the classical nude. This theme firmly planted itself in Magritte’s imagination, as he went on to paint numerous variations on the theme of La magie noire, as well as more than a dozen works of different titles in which a similar three-quarter length nude woman stands either frontally or in profile, in front of a panoramic landscape. Taking as his initial model his wife Georgette, Magritte invented a nude figure that, with her perfectly symmetrical facial features and smooth flawless body, is reminiscent of the idealised sculptures of antiquity, works that stood as the epitome of beauty and grace.
Perfectly poised, in the present work, the figure appears not to be a living, breathing woman, but appears as if she was a statue, her body evoking the cool solidity and polished, unblemished surface of marble. Yet, nothing is ever what it seems in Magritte’s work. Depicted in a state of metamorphosis, the nude is quite literally changing in front of our eyes from flesh into sky. She could be undergoing some Pygmalion-like transformation or quite simply disappearing, or perhaps immortally locked between states. Is she a reality being granted a strange apotheosis, the woman becoming the intangible goddess or ‘Eternal Feminine’ or perhaps vice versa, the corporeal reality of woman replacing an image held on a pedestal?
In addition to being inspired by his wife, Georgette, in his depiction of the female nude, Magritte also frequently turned to the plaster cast of a female torso that he had acquired in the early 1930s. Magritte likely purchased this torso, which was cast from life rather than a classical sculpture, from the Maison Berger, the art store in Brussels owned by his sister-in-law, where he purchased all his artistic materials. In 1932, this object first appeared in two works, titled La belle de nuit (Sylvester, no. 346) and Quand l’heure sonnera (Sylvester, no. 347). The plaster torso allowed Magritte to play with notions of reality and artifice in his compositions, forcing the viewer to question what is imagined and what is real within the scene. In many ways, he takes these concepts a step further in the present work, not only enlarging the torso to become a full scale nude, but combining two different physical states within the same motif.
It was Magritte himself who came up with the title, La magie noire, explaining, ‘Black magic. It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky’ (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. II, p. 187). The mysterious ‘alchemy,’ as Paul Nougé described the metamorphosis that dominates the present work, is one of the central themes that runs throughout Magritte’s art. Yet, Magritte was not attempting to depict a moment of supernatural magic, but was instead revealing the mysteries inherent in reality, drawing the viewer into, ‘a theatre of the unpredictable’ (M. Draguet and C. Goormans, in Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 160). As Nougé explained, ‘The light is so pure and so present that the body gives itself over to the colour of the sky and slips away from our sight like the darkest night. This is, however, only the transparent spell of reality and not a miracle. Suddenly, arising from the depths of the image or ourselves, one can hear a kind of solemn warning’ (quoted in ibid., p. 160).
In so many of Magritte’s compositions, objects are undergoing a transformation, depicted as they change from one state or identity to another; as he explained, ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change of substance in the case of certain objects: a wooden sky, for instance; the use of words in association with images; the misnaming of an object… the use of certain visions glimpsed between sleeping and waking, such in general were the means devised to force objects out of the ordinary, to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world’ (‘La Ligne de vie,’ in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen, eds., René Magritte 1898-1967, exh. cat., Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1998, p. 46). As flesh turns to sky, and mass into lightness, La magie noire abounds with juxtapositions and transformations, embodying one of the central tenets of Magritte’s enigmatic and highly distinctive form of Surrealism. ‘I have found a new potential in things – their ability to become gradually something else, an object merging into an object other than itself… This seems to me to be something quite different from a composite object, since there is no break between the two substances and no limit. By this means I produce pictures in which the eye must “think” in a completely different way from the usual one’ (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1992, vol. I, pp. 245-246).

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