RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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Property from a Distinguished European Collection
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

L’île au trésor

RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
L’île au trésor
signed ‘Magritte’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
23 ¾ x 31 5⁄8 in. (60.3 x 80.4 cm.)
Painted in 1945
Edmond Salembier, Belgium (acquired from the artist, 1946).
J. Toledo, São Paolo (acquired from the above, by 1975); sale, Sotheby’s, London, 2 December 1981, lot 70.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
D. Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, New York, 1993, vol. II, p. 356, no. 585 (illustrated).
Brussels, Galerie des Editions de Boétie, Surréalisme: Exposition de tableaux, dessins, collages, objets, photos et textes, December 1945-January 1946, no. 83.
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, René Magritte: Die Kunst der Konversation, November 1996-March 1997, pp. 138 and 254, no. 52 (illustrated in color, p. 138).
Vienna, BA-CA Kunstforum and Basel, Fondation Beyeler, René Magritte: The Key to Dreams, April-November 2005, pp. 120 and 200, no. 54 (illustrated in color, p. 120).

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Lot Essay

Filled with a sumptuous sense of color and light, L’île au trésor focuses on one of René Magritte’s most striking leitmotifs—the fantastical, metamorphic “leaf-bird,” caught between two states of being as it transforms. With the combination of the bird and plant-life, the artist challenges our understanding of the sense of order within the natural world, bringing together two seemingly incongruous and yet intensely familiar things to create an unexpected hybrid creature. Magritte explored this subject in a number of oil and gouache paintings at the beginning of the 1940s, perhaps inspired by the view of an aviary filled with birds that was visible from the window of his home at 135 Rue Esseghem in Brussels. Painted in 1945, the present work has remained in the same private collection for the last forty years.
The concept of metamorphosis had long fascinated Magritte, first making its way into his unique approach to Surrealism in the late 1920s. Rather than simply marrying two different elements together, however, he found it particularly stimulating to render his subjects in an in-between state. “I have found a new potential inherent in things,” the artist wrote in 1927, “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” (letter to P. Nougé; quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. I, pp. 245-246). It is this type of gradual transformation that gives the “leaf-bird” its dramatic sense of magic. While his earliest meditations on metamorphosis had focused on lithe, nude women in the midst of turning into wood or the sky, with the “leaf-bird” paintings Magritte presents a subtler approach to the theme, invoking the many processes within the natural world in which one thing evolves into another, such as the transition of a caterpillar into a butterfly.
In L’île au trésor Magritte plays on the viewer’s understanding of the two separate objects, combining the wondrous flight of birds with the grounded, rootedness of vegetation. The bushel of “leaf-birds” springs to life from its position on the edge of a cliff, with almost a dozen birds sprouting from its branches, their forms filled with energy and movement. Capturing the scene at the exact moment of transformation, the artist handles the transition from leaf to bird with extreme delicacy, allowing the green, waxy surface of the plant to gradually shift into the soft, plush plumage of the doves, emphasizing the shift in texture through light, flickering brushstrokes. In some cases, the birds seem to be almost completely transformed, the veins of the leaves disappearing among their feathers, while others retain the prominent network of lines across their bodies. The vibrantly hued plant overlooks a serene stretch of sea and, apart from the flickering, colorful brushstrokes of the grass, no other plants are visible. As such, it remains unclear whether this is a one-off phenomenon, a single bush magically transformed, or if there is an entire grove of such plants that exist just out of sight, beyond the edge of the canvas.
According to David Sylvester, the title L’île au trésor was suggested by Magritte’s close friend and fellow Surrealist, the Belgian poet Louis Scutenaire, taking inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling adventure of the same name, which was said to be a favorite novel of Magritte’s that he re-read each year. Although the artist assigned great importance to the titles of his paintings, he disliked the search for hidden or symbolic meanings that they could engender. “The titles of my pictures are only a conversational convenience, they are not explanations,” he stated, “[they] are meant as an extra protection to counter any attempt to reduce poetry to a pointless game” (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 46). Nevertheless, there is an air of fantasy and adventure within the present composition, accentuated by the choice of title—the presence of the extraordinary birds and their proximity to the sea suggests the existence of a mysterious island, where the treasure waiting to be discovered is not gold or jewels, but rather these magical flora and fauna. It is such an idea that marked Paul Colinet’s vivid description of the “leaf-bird” motif in his text for the artist’s murals in the Casino Knokke: “L’île au trésor, where the trees have no foliage other than their songs” (P. Colinet and R. Magritte, “Le domaine enchanté”: Panorama Surréaliste de René Magritte, Knokke, 1953, n.p.).
In the present work, Magritte chooses to conjure a flock of doves from the plant, an animal intrinsically linked with the notion of peace. While earlier iterations of the “leaf-birds” had focused on owls, who appeared before the viewer as watchful, predatory sentinels, L’île au trésor is filled with a greater sense of life and dynamism—the birds jostle for position beneath the blue sky, fluffy white clouds drifting lazily past, the mixture of foliage and feathers rendered in a play of bright, lively color. Through the Second World War, as the conflict raged across Europe and the artist was living in occupied Belgium, Magritte had begun to explore a new visual idiom that favored a lighter tone, eschewing the dark, often foreboding, scenes of his earlier Surrealist years. Writing to Paul Eluard in December 1941, he described this shift in his work: “Doubtless I have to find the means of realizing what has plagued me: pictures in which I could explore the ‘beautiful side’ of life. By this I understand the whole traditional repertoire of delightful things: women, flowers, birds, trees, the atmosphere of happiness, etc. I have managed to bring a fresh wind to my painting. In my pictures an enormous magic has now replaced the uncanny poetry whose effect I used so much to strive for. On the whole, pleasure now supplants a whole series of essential interests that I wish increasingly to leave out...” (quoted in S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, p. 191).
For Magritte, the greatest success of these pictures lay in the tension that arose between the familiarity of the objects he depicted, and the impossible, fantastical Surreal scenario they suggested. “The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change in substance in the case of certain objects...,” he explained, “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). With the “leaf-bird” paintings, Magritte sought to draw our attention to the inherent beauty and magic of the natural world.

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