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

Le duo

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
Le duo
signed 'Magritte' (upper left); inscribed "LE DUO" (on the turnover edge)
oil on canvas
28 ¾ x 21 ¼ in. (73 x 54 cm.)
Painted in 1928
(Probably) Galerie Le Centaure, Brussels.
E.L.T. Mesens, Brussels & London, by whom probably acquired from the above circa 1932-1933 and thence by descent; sale, Sotheby's, London, 4 April 1990, lot 341.
Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Private collection, Belgium, by whom acquired from the above in the early 1990s, and thence by descent to the present owners.
D. Sylvester, ed., & S. Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, Oil Paintings, 1916-1930, London, 1992, no. 221, p. 274 (illustrated).
Antwerp, Stedelijke Feestzaal-Meir, Kunst van Heden: salon 1956, October 1956, no. 105 or cat. 261.
Knokke, Casino Communal, XVe Festival belge d'été, L'œuvre de René Magritte, July - August 1962, no. 28, p. 44.

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Ottavia Marchitelli
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Lot Essay

In Le duo, René Magritte presents the viewer with a deceptively simplified composition: the upper section is dominated by a band of monochrome grey, while below it two bulbous, near-identical forms sit next to each other. Painted in 1928, the composition perfectly encapsulates the spirits of enquiry and mystery that characterised Magritte’s early pictures, demonstrating to what degree this was, as David Sylvester has described it, a period of, ‘unflagging inspiration’ for the Belgian artist (D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, London, 1992, p. 40). This was a time when Magritte had been drawn to Paris and the dynamic circle of Surrealists working there. Having studied reproductions of works by artists such as Max Ernst from his home in Brussels, now he was suddenly at the vanguard of the movement, spending extended amounts of time with its artists, poets and writers. These experiences had an enormous impact on Magritte, and infused his paintings with the new sense of confidence so palpable in works such as Le duo.
The twin forms in the picture are evocative without giving the viewer the comfort of knowing what they are. They resemble the shapes from his word paintings, rubber, offal, or even the dark breasts of the headless torso shown in Le supplice de la vestale from the previous year (Sylvester, no. 134; Private collection). These bulging forms, presented like specimens on a slab, have a haptic quality that makes them all the more engaging, making intangible overtures to the viewer’s various senses. It is a testimony to the quality of Le duo that it was selected for two of Magritte’s lifetime retrospectives, in Antwerp in 1956 and at the Casino Communal in Knokke-Le Zoute in 1962.
This early period of intensive inspiration had been launched by Magritte’s discovery of the works of Giorgio de Chirico a few years prior (accounts differ as to when the revelation itself took place, and how instant it was). In particular, Magritte had been struck by De Chirico’s masterpiece Le chant d’amour, painted in 1914 and now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In that picture, a rubber glove hangs limp by a fragment of ancient statuary against a near-timeless Italianate townscape. Magritte explained the effect of the composition on his imagination: ‘This triumphant poetry supplanted the stereo-typed effect of traditional painting. It represented a complete break with the mental habits peculiar to artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the little aesthetic idiosyncrasies. It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognise his own isolation and hear the silence of the world’ (quoted in ibid., p. 39).
In Le duo, this effect is achieved with a bold economy of means. These softly gleaming faux-protruding forms appear to emerge from the canvas into the realm of the viewer with no explanation, prompting a new understanding of the world or, at least, demanding that the viewer accept that such explanations are sometimes impossible. It is not only in conceptual terms that Le duo is linked to De Chirico’s precedents, but also in terms of its composition—for example, the rubberised forms that dominate the present canvas recall the fingers of the empty glove in Le chant d’amour. At the same time, the title draws a parallel with De Chirico’s Le duo of 1915, also in The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sylvester’s catalogue raisonné of Magritte’s works draws a comparison between the forms in Le duo and the thighs of the mannequins in De Chirico’s painting of the same title. As well as those thighs and the breasts of Le supplice de la vestale, the nestled proximity of the ambiguous objects in the present canvas also evoke the shrouded heads of the embracing couples in Magritte’s Les amants, also of 1928, (Sylvester, no. 250; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Indeed, Magritte created a drawing of the same theme in 1928 and titled it Le duo.
The theme of duality that is explored in the present composition, with its similar adjacent forms, underpinned many of Magritte’s most eloquent explorations of the mysteries of existence. Sometimes he would use contrasting elements to explore this, and at other times objects that were inherently similar. In some of his word paintings of the same period, near-identical elements sported different textual additions, unveiling the arbitrary nature of representation in the process. Another painting of the same title from this period (Sylvester, no. 261), now in the Castello di Rivoli on a long-term loan from the celebrated Federico Cerruti collection, shows an amoeba-shaped flat blue shape with an even ridge around it, with the word fusil (‘rifle’) emblazoned across its centre and positioned next to a piece of pierced furniture. In that work, contrasts are probed, whereas in the present example of Le duo, it is the very similarity of the two objects that begs the viewer to question the nature of the unique. It is telling that it was during this time that Magritte had become increasingly exposed to the works of his international Surrealist contemporaries, such as Ernst and Yves Tanguy. The evocative forms serve a similar purpose in their conjuring of a sense of the uncanny, teetering on the fringes of familiarity and recognition yet remaining ultimately elusive, dark, unknowable and strange.
Le duo was among the works chosen to feature in Magritte’s seminal 1962 retrospective at the Casino Communal de Knokke. This was a location already intrinsically tied to Magritte’s oeuvre: one of the rooms of the Casino boasts the eight monumental panels of his immersive suite of paintings, Le domaine enchanté (Sylvester, no. 792). In a statement made at the time, Magritte cut to the heart of his paintings in words that apply to Le duo, painted over three decades earlier: What must be painted is limited to a thought that can be described in painting… this thought is not passive, like a mirror: it is highly ordered, it unites—in the order evocative of the world’s mystery and thought’ (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 263).

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