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

L'ami intime

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
L'ami intime
signed ‘Magritte’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
28 5⁄8 x 25 ½ in. (72.6 x 64.9 cm.)
Painted in January - February 1958
Galerie Alexander Iolas, Paris & New York, by whom acquired directly from the artist in December 1958.
Mario Tazzoli, Turin, by 1965.
Max Wasserman, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, by 1969.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 26 March 1980, lot 61.
Georges Marci, Switzerland, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Gilbert & Lena Kaplan, New York, by whom acquired from the above in 1980.
Letter from René Magritte to Maurice Rapin, 17 January 1958.
Letter from René Magritte to André Bosmans, 19 May 1959.
P. Waldberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, pp. 264 & 352 (illustrated p. 264).
I. Clurman, Surrealism and the Painting of Matta and Magritte, Stanford, 1970, p. 16.
J. Milo, Vie et survie du 'Centaure', Brussels, 1980, p. 229.
D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-1967, London, 1993, no. 865, pp. 279 & 280 (illustrated p. 279).
D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 14 (illustrated).
S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, Paris, 2009, no. 377, p. 277 (illustrated).
Brussels, Galerie Europe, Art actuel: Peintres belges contemporains: 1er salon, March - April 1958, no. 20.
New York, Alexander Iolas Gallery, René Magritte, 1959.
Little Rock, Arkansas Art Center, Magritte, May - June 1964.
Paris, Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Magritte: Le sens propre, November - December 1964, no. 9.
Cologne, Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, René Magritte: mit Bilden und Gouachen, January - March 1965 (illustrated).
London, Tate Gallery, René Magritte, February - April 1969, no. 84, pp. 123 & 133 (illustrated p. 123).
Hanover, Kestner Gesellschaft, René Magritte, May - June 1969, no. 62, p. 75 (illustrated p. 131); this exhibition later travelled to Zurich, Kunsthaus, June - July 1969.
London, The Hayward Gallery, The South Bank Centre, Magritte, May - August 1992, no. 116 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, September - November 1992.
Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Magritte, March - June 1998, no. 195, p. 194 (illustrated).

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

Lot Essay

The anonymous man in a bowler hat is one of the most familiar icons of René Magritte’s art. A totemic figure, usually seen from the back and therefore faceless and mysterious, he functions in Magritte’s paintings as a pictorial cypher: an apparently banal, metropolitan image of the norm and the everyday. He is, in one sense, the epitome of the generic and the commonplace. His smart, uniform, bourgeois attire signifies an ordinary, mundane humanity or what Magritte once described as ‘the unity of man.’ In another sense however, his faceless presence, standing in apparent contemplation of the scenes set before him, signifies the realm of the hidden and of something forever unknowable about Magritte’s strangely familiar worlds of mystery.
In Magritte’s paintings of the 1950s, the bowler-hatted-man, first painted by the artist as a dark and perhaps even sinister presence in the 1920s, was to become a recurrent and more calming figure in a new phase of his work. It is this period that has now come to be regarded as a defining era in Magritte’s oeuvre – the one in which he was to create many of his most famous and best-loved works: from his L’empire de lumières series to the classic images of the lone, itinerant figure of the man in the bowler hat. Wandering, like a suburban flâneur through the often strange worlds of these pictures, Magritte’s man in the bowler came, during these years, to serve as a kind of reassuring counterpoint to the surprising and sometimes even shocking revelations of his art and the way in which it unpicked the conventions we use to both perceive and to depict reality.
L’ami intime (The Intimate Friend) is one of the finest of all these famous and mysterious paintings of the man in the bowler hat. Created during the first months of 1958, it depicts this familiar, anonymous figure seen from behind and staring out over a sunlit, green landscape. The man stands behind a block-stone balcony that both separates him from the scene and frames him into a domestic setting. Behind him, the magical appearance of a baguette and a glass of water, apparently levitating at the centre of the canvas and against his back, transforms this simple image into something wholly unexpected, mysterious and completely out of the ordinary. As if to augment this atmosphere of unreality, each of the various objects in this painting – the spherical bowler, the crystal-clear wine glass and the crusty baguette – has been so painstakingly rendered and with such hyperreal precision and attention to detail that each takes on a peculiar, individual sense of presence and sunlit clarity that only heightens the picture’s overall air of mystery.
What is especially notable about Magritte’s use of these elements in L’ami intime is that, unlike in other celebrated images of the bowler-hatted man from this classic period, the artist has here been able to achieve this strangely poetic power solely through the use of very familiar components. The surprise of the painting does not depend, as in such other famous images of the bowler-hatted man from this time as Le bouquet tout fait (Sylvester, no. 859; Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka) and Sans famille (Sylvester, no. 887; Private collection), for example, on the use of exotic or fantastic elements such as the golden-haired figure of Flora from Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, or a miniature nineteenth-century hot air balloon. Here, the ‘poetry’ of the picture – its aura of enigma and of magical possibility – is attained using the most quotidian of objects: a baguette and a glass. As Magritte was himself to observe, L’ami intime is, in this respect, a work that in many ways marks the culmination of his search for the hidden poetry in ordinary things that had preoccupied him for so many years and which would come to define so many of his images of the 1950s. It was indeed a search that may even have had its origins in Magritte’s very first depiction of the man in the bowler: his 1926 painting, Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Sylvester, no. 124; Private collection).
In this early composition depicting the bowler-hatted man walking along a riverbank that resembles the river Sambre near Magritte’s childhood home in Chatelet, the elongated, corpse-like figure of a nude appears floating horizontally against the man’s back, in a manner that recalls the apparition in Max Klinger’s 1915 print entitled Vor’m Turm. For many years after creating this first, haunting image of his solitary wanderer, Magritte experimented repeatedly with the apparition of similarly, strange, elongated clouds appearing in his paintings and often invading a domestic space by coming in through its windows, as in the paintings, A la suite de l’eau, les nuages (Sylvester, no. 91; Kunsthaus, Zurich) and La catapulte du désert of 1926 (Sylvester, no. 108; Private collection), for example. Magritte was ultimately to resolve this idea, however, in his 1936 painting L’avenir (Sylvester, no. 409; Private collection) when he substituted the more familiar, if equally elongated form of a baguette in place of the clouds and showed it lying simply, naturally even, on a table in front of a balcony looking out onto the mystery of the night sky.
It was not until many years later, in January 1958, that these early preoccupations with clouds, with bread and with apparitions invading the domestic space and mind of man, appear to have come back to Magritte. When they did, they asserted themselves suddenly and in what Magritte described as a revelatory moment of inspiration, that disturbed his otherwise ‘habitual state of vacancy.’ He immediately saw the possibility for two entirely new pictures on the theme. These paintings, as the artist wrote to Maurice Rapin, drawing a sketch of each of them in his letter, were to be ‘L’ami intime – Bread and a glass of water on the back of a figure [and] La légende dorée – Loaves of bread in the air. Nocturnal sky and landscape seen through a window’ (Letter to M. Rapin, 17 January 1958; quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, Vol. III, Oil Paintings 1949-67, London, 1993, p. 279). Magritte painted both these works in the first months of 1958 with the aim of showing them at an exhibition due to take place at the Galerie Europe in Brussels in March that year. While La légende dorée (Sylvester, no.866; Private collection) is essentially a landscape in which baguettes, substituting for clouds, fill the sky in a manner reminiscent of Magritte’s 1953 painting Golconde (Sylvester, no. 787; The Menil Collection, Houston) in which the sky had been filled with bowler-hatted men, L’ami intime is a seamless fusion of figure, landscape and still-life. In L’ami intime, each of these three, usually separate genres, plays a vital, but also equal, role in the integrated poetics of the picture, and in a way that eloquently articulates Magritte’s belief that man himself is also a construct. ‘Man,’ Magritte said, ‘is a visible apparition like a cloud, like a tree, like a house, like everything we see. I don’t deny him any importance and neither do I accord him any pre-eminence in a hierarchy of the things that the world offers visually’ (interview with J. Nyens, 1965; quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., The Southbank Centre, London, 1992, p. 236).
The creation of L’ami intime and La légende dorée also gave rise to a third, smaller painting on a similar theme, also made around this time. This was the painting La force des choses (Sylvester, no. 871) that now forms part of The Menil Collection’s exceptional group of Magritte pictures in Houston. Magritte wrote to his friend André Bosmans on 19 May 1959 that he considered this painting to be a smaller variant of L’ami intime. La force des choses omits the figure of the man in the bowler hat entirely, depicting only the same combination of floating baguette and wine glass that appears in L’ami intime, this time set against the balcony and the night sky. It was bought by Dominique de Menil directly from Alexandre Iolas, Magritte’s dealer, in 1959.
Unlike with his objects however, Magritte could almost never depict the image of man completely alone. For him, it was always essential to present the human figure in his paintings as a being intrinsically interrelated to the mystery of the reality of the world around him. ‘A man always has other things with him,’ Magritte would insist. ‘We are in the world. We cannot escape from it. We cannot isolate ourselves’ (quoted in op. cit., 1993, p. 340). Similarly, the poetry Magritte sought to express in his paintings was also ‘inseparable’ from the mind, and therefore also, the presence of man. The ‘pictorial experience,’ Magritte would write, was one that ‘confirms my faith in the unknown possibilities of life. All these unknown things which are coming to light convince me that our happiness too depends on an enigma inseparable from man and that our only duty is to try to grasp this enigma’ (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, p. 48).
It had been in 1951 that Magritte had first returned to the image of the man in the bowler hat as a vehicle through which to express this ‘inseparability’ between man and the ‘enigma’ of ‘the pictorial experience,’ in a work he appropriately entitled L’art poétique. This painting, which Magritte subsequently re-titled, La boîte de Pandore (Sylvester, no. 772; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), depicts the bowler-hatted man about to cross a bridge into a new domain, and it marked the artist’s first major use of the man in the bowler hat, seen from the back in the form of a Rückenfigur, since the 1920s. The painting’s original title of L’art poétique was then subsequently, if also temporarily, bestowed upon the artist’s next two paintings of the man in a bowler, made in 1952 and 1953 and which he ultimately entitled: Le chant des sirènes (Sylvester, nos. 778 and 798).
These two pictures now depicted the bowler-hatted Rückenfigur as a kind of trope looking out to sea with a candle and a leaf or glass of water standing on a shelf behind him. It was this kind of exploration of an innate poetics of the ordinary and the everyday that effectively inaugurated what was to become the spectacular sequence of images of the man in the bowler hat that followed. In each, Magritte set out to render the iconic presence of the proxy, half-figure image of the man in the bowler with a fastidiousness and hyper-real attention to detail hitherto not seen in his previous images. As a result, it is these paintings, more than any other bowler-hatted men pictures, that have come to be recognised as the classic pictorial embodiments of the Magrittean world and of its interrelating of the realms of art and thought.
Along with L’ami intime of 1958, this great series of paintings – all made between 1954 and 1958 – includes Le grand siècle, 1954 (Sylvester, no. 812; Städtisches Museum, Gelsenkirchen), Le bouquet tout fait of 1956 and 1957 (Sylvester, no. 859; Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka), La double vue, 1957 (Sylvester, no. 846; Private collection), Le poète récompensé, 1956 (Sylvester, no. 838; Private collection) and Sans famille, 1958 (Sylvester, no. 887; Private collection). As many of their titles suggest, the theme of thought, of vision and of the ‘art of poetry’ that had underpinned Magritte’s ideas from La boîte de Pandore onwards evidently persisted in these works. In addition, and although these great man-in-the-bowler-hat paintings are not self-portraits, their iconic use of the Rückenfigur image clearly suggests the presence of both the mind and the world of the artist within the work. Magritte, after all, often took to dressing up as his bowler-hatted Everyman for publicity photographs at this time. These paintings evidently play with the idea of the man in the bowler as a pictorial proxy for the human presence in a way that helps to articulate the fundamental mystery of reality and the innate poetry that can exist in a simple encounter between two or more unremarkable and familiar objects.
David Sylvester has argued, for example, that the combination of the glass and the loaf of bread that so distinguishes L’ami intime and which Magritte was to re-employ on their own in The Menil Collection’s La force des choses, is one that derives from the artist’s La place au soleil pictures of 1956 (Sylvester, nos. 1401-1407). The La place au soleil pictures were a series of ultimately unpublished images intended to form a book of ideas where, like the Comte de Lautréamont’s ‘chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table,’ two apparently unconnected objects were juxtaposed with one another to form a strangely resonant sense of poetry and enigma.
Noticing also, that as in L’ami intime, many of the objects that comprise Magritte’s ‘poetics of the ordinary’ are also objects that appeared again and again in his art, the art historian Siegfried Gohr has written on this point that: ‘As these objects generally represent self-quotations, they are [also] connected to the development of Magritte’s oeuvre – and therefore to the artist himself who, indirectly, reflects on his own art by means of the elements of landscape, “man” and quotation… Hasn’t the figure in the bowler hat himself just stepped out of Modernism and into a different present? Magritte created an artificial figure and let him wander through a world that is his – artificial because he no longer appears in the same way as in the realism of the 1920s but as a phantom, an imagined and invented proxy for the human subject. Lecomte pointed out the dignity paradoxically possessed by this average man. Yet this impression is sometimes leavened by helplessness. For the man never enters an active relationship with the quoted objects: glasses, loaves of bread, candles, leaves, Botticelli’s Spring and so on. It is as if the artist were using the figure to test the viability and meaning of his repertoire by tying its elements into ever-fresh “bouquets”’ (Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, Antwerp, 2017, p. 277).
Magritte himself was to put it somewhat differently, referring once again to the ‘art of poetry’ in the world of ordinary objects and the essential role that both thought and inspiration, (as had been the case in the origins of L’ami intime), played in this perception. Writing, in a letter to Volker Kahmen, in November 1964, Magritte noted, that ‘for me, painting is a means of describing a thought that consists uniquely of the visible the world offers. This thought is not specialized, it aspires only to see, or, better, to become the world as it is. There’s no question of the imaginary, of fantasy, of the fantastic, of hope, despair, of avant-garde artistic activity, etc. This thought, which deserves to be described correctly, is different from the ordinary awareness of the world as an “object,” one to be exploited in one way or another: by business, religion, war, politics, science, artistic activity, etc. (this latter does not exploit, but “deals with” the world in a particular way). This thought only emanates from inspiration: inspiration for me doesn’t consist in dealing with a subject (for example, the death of Socrates), but in knowing what must be painted so that the visible that the world offers is united in such a way as to evoke the mystery of the visible and the invisible. The world as it is, is inseparable from its mystery’ (Letter to V. Kahmen, 25 November 1964; quoted in H. Torzcyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, p. 263).

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