An exquisitely rendered gouache that was executed in 1948, La recherche de l’absolu (‘The Search for the absolute’) features one of René Magritte’s best loved and enduring motifs: the ‘leaf-tree’. Set amidst a strange seascape, under what seems to be a partly wooden sky, this captivating and poetic vision presents a leafless, post-autumnal tree whose branches form the shape of a large, single leaf. In this leaf-tree, the leaves themselves have been removed creating further ambiguity between leaf and tree, with the veins of the leaf doubling as the branches of the tree. Accompanying this totemic motif are two still-life objects that stand nearby: a large boulder and the form of a curtain – objects that reappeared frequently in Magritte’s art.
The idea of the ‘leaf-tree’ first entered Magritte’s art in La géante of 1935 (Sylvester, no. 362) in which a sturdy tree trunk set within a verdant landscape is adorned not with a multitude of leaves, but with one single, over-sized leaf. At the time that he painted this oil, Magritte was in the midst of one of the most important periods of his career, during which he had embarked upon an artistic exploration to seek ‘solutions’ to particular pictorial ‘problems’ posed by various objects. In seeking, and subsequently revealing, the ‘elective affinities’ that lay hidden between related objects, Magritte was able to render the most banal and ubiquitous in an extraordinary way, removing the blinders of everyday life from his viewers’ eyes so they could see the world afresh. The ‘problem of the bird’ was solved by depicting an egg in a cage; the ‘problem of the door’ resolved by painting a shapeless hole cut through it; ‘the problem of the cloud’ solved through the magnificent combination of a cloud balancing atop a glass, these disparate elements linked via the element of water. In July 1934, he wrote to André Breton, ‘I am trying at the moment to discover what it is in a tree that belongs to it specifically but which would run counter to our concept of a tree’ (Letter from Magritte to A. Breton, July 1934, in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 194). The answer he found was brilliant in its sheer simplicity: it was of course, the leaf. As he later explained in his lecture of 1938, ‘The tree, as the subject of a problem, became a large leaf the stem of which was a trunk directly planted in the ground’ (Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, lecture given in Antwerp on 2 November 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., Magritte Centenary Exhibition, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 47).
In La recherche de l’absolu, the verdant foliage has given way to a more autumnal conception of this idea. The development of this motif had first occurred eight years prior to the creation of the present work. At the end of 1940, Magritte painted three oils, all entitled La recherche de l’absolu (Sylvester, nos. 481-483), in which the same tree stands variously amidst a dusky, twilight landscape, under a star-filled night sky, and in the morning. Magritte described these canvases to his friend the Belgian playwright Claude Spaak in a letter of January 1941, soon after he had completed the group: ‘Among the recent canvases, there are three versions of “The search for the absolute”, which is a leafless tree (in winter) but with branches that provide the shape of a leaf, a Leaf even so! One version takes place in the evening with a setting sun, another in the morning with a white sphere on the horizon, and the third shows this great, self-willed leaf rising against a starry sky’ (Letter from Magritte to C. Spaak, 5 January 1941, quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., p. 282). Magritte was clearly very pleased with this new conception, continuing to Spaak, ‘These researches have allowed me to produce three very pure pictures, with which you would have been very pleased, I think’ (ibid., p. 282).
It is a reflection of the enduring strength and purity of this leaf-tree motif that Magritte would return to in later years, not least in this 1948 gouache. Here, he has added several elements that mark out the difference between La recherche de l'absolu and its predecessors. Not only has Magritte added the strange apparition of the curtain and the rock into the landscape, but he has also subtly altered the location and ambience of this scene. The tree stands amidst a plain that appears to lead into the sea, yet this beach is not rendered out of pale, yellow sand, nor even grey pebbles, but instead what appears to be earth, flecked in places with patches of green grass. More extraordinarily, the soft, strange dusky, or perhaps dawn sky is patterned with the delicately gradated texture of wood. By changing the boundless, intangible realm of the sky into a dense, tangible material – a technique he had immersed himself in with his paintings of scenes solidified into rock – Magritte infuses this scene with further mystery. The act of transformation from one state to another was one of the most effective tools that Magritte used to capture the unexpected in his art and change our conventional view of the world; as he explained, ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change of substance in the case of certain objects: a wooden sky, for instance…the use of certain visions glimpsed between sleeping and waking, such in general 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’ (Magritte, ‘La Ligne de vie’, op. cit., p. 46).
The title of the present gouache comes from the novel La recherche de l'absolu (‘The Quest for the Absolute’) by Honoré de Balzac, which portrays the destructive effects of one man's obsession with alchemy and a quest for absolute truth. Magritte often took inspiration from literature, film and music when creating titles for his canvases, and he also invited suggestions from friends such as the writers Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire, who is thought to have contributed the title for the present work. As in many of Magritte's paintings after 1930, the title has a tenuous, indirect or seemingly incongruous relationship with the imagery, through which the artist invites the viewer to build associations on their own.
La recherché de l’absolu has an esteemed provenance, having passed through the hands of two of the most important collectors of Surrealism in the United States. First owned by Alexander Iolas, Magritte’s American dealer, it was acquired by William Copley, one of the artist’s great friends and most influential supporters in the USA. Based in los Angeles, Copley, with the advice of his friend, Marcel Duchamp, founded a gallery in 1948, which was dedicated to the exhibition of Surrealism, including the work of Magritte, Man Ray and Joseph Cornell. As his gallery closed after just six months, Copley accumulated for himself a large number of the works he had exhibited for his personal collection, including Magritte's seminal masterpiece, La trahison des images of 1929 (now in LACMA). La recherche de l’absolu later entered to collection of the New York-based philanthropists Robert M. and Helen W. Benjamin. From the early 1960s, the couple immersed themselves in the New York contemporary art world, acquiring a large collection and becoming involved with the Whitney Museum of American Art.