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

Jesus Christus [Tête de Christ]

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
Jesus Christus [Tête de Christ]
signed and inscribed '-MAGRITTE RENÉ-D'APRÈS GAB MAX-' (upper right) and inscribed 'Jesus Christus' (lower centre)
oil on canvas
22 1⁄8 x 18 1⁄8 in. (56.2 x 46 cm.)
Painted circa 1918
Reverend Uyllenbroeck, Schaerbeek.
Prosper Van de Weghe, Schaerbeek, a gift from the above.
Paul De Grauwe, Leuven, by descent from the above.
Private collection, Brussels.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2022.
S. Whitfield, ed., René Magritte, Newly Discovered Works, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. VI, Oil Paintings, Gouaches, Drawings, New Haven & London, 2012, no. 1, p. 14 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

An extremely rare and early painting by the master of Surrealism, René Magritte (1898-1967), Sans titre [Head of Christ] is a powerful combination of religious and popular imagery which exemplifies Magritte’s avant-garde approach. Based on a postcard of Jesus Christ by the Symbolist painter Gabriel Max (1890-1915), the work testifies to Magritte’s training in Brussels and his provocative appropriation of religious imagery which anticipates his later Surrealist work. The intensity of this vision of the crucified Christ signals that Magritte’s art, at the onset of his illustrious career, was already marked by a unique vision.

Sans titre depicts Christ wearing a woven crown of thorns from the New Testament, his beard long and unkempt. A halo of white paint outlines his head, indicating his divinity. The thorns, which interweave with his hair, are streaked with red, reflecting the pain inflicted by his captors as they mock his claim to authority with a punitive crown. Magritte develops a textured background by intermingling contrasting colours in quick, visible brushstrokes in yellow, green, and brown. The painted illusion of a sheet of cloth is torn and pinned with nails to a black background, perhaps alluding to the stigmata on Christ’s hands and feet where he was nailed to the cross. Here, Magritte is already experimenting with illusionistic strategies to make the viewer question what they are seeing. Ultimately, the composition is anchored by Christ’s eyes, in which Magritte creates a proto-Surrealist optical illusion. Christ appears to be gazing out at the viewer with red pupils but simultaneously his eyelids appear to be closed, framed by streaks of blood, reiterating that ‘Jesus Christus’ (as per the inscription) is wavering between life and death.

Sans titre was painted before Magritte saw Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love (1914), which launched his experimentation with Surrealism. Magritte, aged just twenty years old, was coming to the end of his studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he had experimented with different styles, ranging from academic landscapes to Impressionist figure studies. Brussels was occupied by the German army between 1914 and 1918, leading to severe shortages, particularly of coal, making it difficult to view art. This was a pivotal moment in Magritte’s life as he transitioned from art school towards a far more radical modernism. Magritte would later recall:

‘We were much too poor to have art books. We used to go to the Academy library, but at that time it was an appalling shambles, and it was difficult to get books, and moreover you couldn’t take them home. So it was mainly photos – photos which came from Italy, Alinari and Anderson photos. And then at the Artistic Cooperative you could find postcards. There were boxes on the pavement, postcards with reproductions.’ [David Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1, New York: The Menil Foundation, 1992, p. 13]

It was here, as a student sorting through the old art books and photographs that could be found in the Coopérative Artistique, 17 rue du Midi, that Magritte ventured to the shop next door, Maison d’Art Arekens, and discovered a postcard by Gabriel Max. A version of the Veil of Veronica, it shows Christ’s face on a piece of cloth, a holy image that is said to have been created by a miracle. The postcard that Magritte took home with him staged the increasing contradictions of modernity, an era in which an image of religious devotion was widely available as a popular postcard of virtually no worth. Except to Magritte.

Here, as in his later paintings, Magritte carefully strikes a balance between irony and a deceptively straightforward sentimentality, the two so intimately intertwined that they cannot be untangled. It seems appropriate that the painting initially belonged to the Reverend Uyllenbroeck, the curé of Sainte-Marie in Schaerbeek. Sans titre can be read as a work of modernist appropriation and as a religious icon simultaneously, the playfulness of Magritte’s idea belying the raw pain of the painting itself. Its ambiguous blurring of meaning and medium anticipates his Surrealist output in Paris in the late 1920s, where alongside his contemporaries, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and de Chirico, he forged a radical, dream-like vision of the modern world. Magritte’s masterpiece The Treachery of Images (1929), a picture of a pipe with the ironic inscription ‘Ceci n'est pas une pipe’, radically announced the limits of representation, just as Sans titre is not an image of Christ, but a copy of a postcard of a painting of a religious icon. The complex layers of meaning make this painting an intensely personal and dramatic meditation on faith and modernism in the twentieth century.

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