René Magritte (1898-1967) never bought into the romantic notion of the artist as a solitary genius and outsider. His idea of fun was a game of chess with other locals at the Brussels café, The Greenwich — or a walk around the block with his pet Pomeranian dogs.
He regularly depicted bourgeois men in bowler hats, and these might well be said to be self-portraits: Magritte lived a quiet, decidedly ordinary life and often posed for photographs in such a hat. ‘The man with the bowler is just a middle-class man in his anonymity,’ he maintained. ‘I wear one: I’m not eager to singularise myself.’
In fact, the bowler-hatted man was a vehicle for Magritte to use ordinariness to explore mystery. ‘The bowler hat works like a mask in imposing a sober anonymity upon the wearer,’ wrote David Sylvester, the celebrated art critic and curator. ‘Magritte’s surrealist inner life was served by that conventional disguise, rather as surrealists’ reviews were served by looking like scientific journals. He was a man socially ill at ease who used formal behaviour to put himself at a distance. He was an agent of subversion who disguised himself as a petit bourgeois who just happened — almost like a naïf painter — to make amazing images.’
One of his rarest, largest (100 x 81 cm) and finest images of bowler-hatted men, Le lieu commun (‘The Commonplace’) comes to auction on 27 February 2019, as part of The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale at Christie’s London. It depicts a single figure from two viewpoints — or possibly two identical-looking figures — in a surreal forest setting.
Never offered at auction before, the painting was commissioned from Magritte by the celebrated collector Gustave Nellens before disappearing into private Asian collections. It is one of four works from 1964 featuring a bowler-hatted man that mark the culmination of this theme in Magritte’s work.
La grande guerre, L’homme au chapeau melon and Le fils de l’homme, which sold for a huge price in 1998, are the others. Those three works are relatively simple in format: each features a single subject against a plain background looking out at us in the manner of a conventional portrait, but for an apple or white dove in front of the face that wholly obscures our view.
Le lieu commun, by contrast, is a rare example of Magritte showing the full face of his bowler-hatted man. In most images, the figure was actually seen from the back. In keeping with Magritte’s notion of men in bowlers as emblems of bourgeois uniformity, Le lieu commun’s figure has no distinguishing facial features. He resembles an Everyman.
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What is undeniably striking, though, is the way Magritte intertwines his subject and a red-stone column in the putative foreground with a tall, green forest in the putative background. In a new and original fashion, he makes use of a strip-like composition, in which background becomes foreground and foreground becomes background. He’s playing with perspective — or, put more accurately, playing with our expectations of how perspective works in a picture — as well as with landscape and portrait painting genres.
‘All my latest pictures are leading me toward the simplified painting that I have long wanted to achieve,’ said the artist. ‘It is in short the ever more rigorous search for what, in my view, is the essential element in art: purity and precision in the image of mystery, which becomes decisive through being shorn of everything incidental or accidental.’
Here, Magritte anticipates one of the great paintings of his final years, 1965’s strip-like Le blanc seing, which forms part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. In that work the image of a horse and its rider are ambiguously intertwined with that of a forest.
‘In subject matter, rarity and scale,’ says Olivier Camu, Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s, ‘Le lieu commun is the most iconic painting by René Magritte to be offered at auction since Le fils de l’homme 20 years ago.
‘It’s highly enigmatic and inventive,’ Camu adds, ‘subverting the traditional genres of portrait and landscape painting, and challenging our understanding of reality and representation. Magritte plays with the viewer’s sense of what is real and what can be perceived. Uniquely, we see this figure both in front of and behind the column, posing in front of the forest but also behind it, so that he is at once revealed and obscured.’
As the artist himself once said, ‘Mystery is what enlightens knowledge’. Le lieu commun is as fine a proof of that as any: Magritte may have chosen to use a very ordinary subject, but he created an extraordinary image.