René Magritte (1898-1967)
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René Magritte (1898-1967)

Les vases communicants (Communicating vessels) 

Details
René Magritte (1898-1967)
Les vases communicants (Communicating vessels) 
signed ‘Magritte’ (lower right); signed ‘Magritte René MAGRITTE’, dated '1946’ and titled (on the reverse)
gouache on paper
14 1/8 x 19½ in. (35.8 x 49.6 cm.)
Executed in 1946
Provenance
Alex Salkin, Brussels.
Iolas Gallery, New York.
Sidney Janis, New York, by whom possibly acquired from the above.
Private collection, New York; sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 27 May 1976, lot 266.
Nicholas Tooth, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Christian Fayt, Knokke-Heist, by whom acquired from the above.
Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, by whom acquired from the above.
Christian Fayt, Knokke-Heist, by whom acquired back from the above.
Sala Dalmau, Barcelona, by 1979.
Private collection, Barcelona, by whom acquired from the above; sale, Christie’s, London, The Art of the Surreal, 7 February 2005, lot 77.
Private collection, Europe; sale, Christie’s, London, The Art of the Surreal, 4 February 2014, lot 120.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
Letter from Magritte to Alex Salkin, 2 January 1947.
P. Tyler, in Exh. cat., René Magritte, New York, 1947.
Letter from Magritte to Alexandre Iolas, 21 April 1947.
Letter from Alex Salkin to Alexandre Iolas, 3 May 1948.
Letter from Alex Salkin to Alexandre Iolas, 13 January 1949.
D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés, 1918-1967, London, 1994, no. 1197, p. 64 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Hugo Gallery, René Magritte, April 1947, no. 29.
Beverly Hills, Copley Galleries, Magritte, September 1948, no. 21.
Paris, Grand Palais, Foire internationale d'art contemporain, Galerie Isy Brachot, Magritte, October 1977, no. 10.
Knokke-Heist, Christian Fayt Art Gallery, June - July 1978, no. 34.
Special notice

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Lot Essay

Executed in 1946, René Magritte’s Les vases communicants presents the viewer with four burning objects confined to individual cubicles: the taper-like candle and the matches which are associated with fire, the key and bilboquet which are not. In a parody of the workings of the human mind, Magritte has presented these elements in a wooden cabinet, each categorised and arranged as though by some Surrealist collector according to hidden criteria that is beyond our grasp. An impossible and alien logic lies behind this ‘wunderkammer’ of the impossible.

The theme of flaming objects had first appeared in Magritte’s shocking and brilliant iconography in 1934 when he painted masterpieces such as L’échelle de feu (Sylvester no. 1108) and Le découverte du feu (Sylvester no. 359) of 1934 or 1935, in which inanimate objects have spontaneously burst into flame. This powerful visual motif of fire was for Magritte, akin to ‘experiencing the same feeling that was felt by the first men who created flame by striking together two pieces of stone. In turn I imagined setting fire to a piece of paper, an egg, and a key’ (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 128). Throughout his career, Magritte sought to find ‘solutions’ to particular ‘problems’ posed by different types of objects, enabling him to challenge and reconfigure the most ubiquitous and commonplace elements of everyday life. To achieve this, the artist explored affinities between objects, thus the ‘problem’ of the bird was solved by depicting an egg in a cage; the ‘problem’ of the door with a shapeless hole cut through it; the tree, with a ‘leaf-tree’. The ‘problem’ of fire was therefore, as the artist explained, ‘solved’ by presenting inanimate metal objects incongruously set ablaze. 

Taking its title from an essay on dreams written by André Breton, Les vases communicants appears to investigate the processes of thought, logic and understanding inherent in our everyday comprehension of the world. The disjointed and disparate compartmentalised elements in Les vases communicants echo other important works such as Le musée dune nuit (1927, Sylvester no. 171) and La clef des songes (1927, Sylvester no. 172, Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, Munich), in which Magritte placed objects above words signifying something else in illusionistically rendered three-dimensional compartments. These paintings playfully illuminate the hollow limitations and arbitrariness of words, and their inability to truly convey meaning or a true idea of the objects they describe. This was a subject that was of great interest to Magritte, which he frequently tackled both in his painting and in his writing, not least in his famous illustrated essay ‘Les mots et les choses’. In Les vases communicants, Magritte has taken elements both familiar and uncanny, and, by placing them in a deliberately banal context, has pointed to the processes of human communication, categorisation, and the arbitrary composition of our thoughts.

When this gouache was exhibited in the Hugo Gallery, New York, the American writer Parker Tyler discussed Les vases communicants in the exhibition catalogue, stating, ‘Here, each in a cubicle, are four nude elements of charade, all of them aflame and inescapably phallic…each is united by the meaning of sex as by the condition of fire…but just as each has its special method of operation, its own intensity and duration of burning, so each man has his peculiar sexual behaviour’ (P. Tyler, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, Volume IV: Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés 1918-1967, Antwerp, 1993, p. 64). Magritte, however, found this analysis to be misguided, writing ‘I don’t agree for a moment with the meaning he gives to my paintings…’ (Magritte, quoted in Sylvester, ibid., p. 143). Magritte particularly disliked the search for hidden or symbolic meanings within his painting. ‘It’s terrifying’, he once wrote, ‘to see what one is exposed to in making an innocent picture’. The artist wanted his compositions and the uncanny contradictions, subversions and disruptions they posed to evoke the unseen mysteries of the world and of reality: the enigma was there to be enjoyed, not to be solved.

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