This work is sold with a photo-certificate from the Comité Magritte dated Londres le 8 septembre 2003.
Soaring over a tranquil seascape, the bird in Le retour, executed in 1950, appears to be the very embodiment of the sublime. There are few images in Magritte's oeuvre that have the same poetic power in their simplicity, that are filled with such a profound sense of the transcendental. For the bird, and even the act of flying, have always been associated with transcendence, with rising up, with apotheosis. In this bird, whose body is made of the day sky, the apotheosis seems all the more explicit. The bird is a pool of light in the midst of the sky at night.
Each of the elements in this absorbing vision contrives to give the viewer that amazing and uplifting sense of flight. The stillness of the sea compared with the beauty and translucence of the skies means that there is no solidity in this work, nothing bearing down on us. However, Magritte is not merely presenting an image of tranquillity. He is also commenting on the way in which we see, and the nature of birds and the air. Magritte has taken the natural element of the bird - the air - and has replaced its entire body with a paradoxical field of the same. It is not even a section of the same sky as surrounds the bird, adding another layer to the paradox. Therefore Magritte has managed cunningly to present the viewer with a scene that is so pleasurable that we almost neglect to notice the very perplexing image at the work's centre. Rather than jolting us violently out of our understanding of the world as he does in so many of his works, Magritte here eases us into a new understanding of the world. The bird itself, with its body made of air, acts as a sort of window into the world of infinite possibilities, or into new perceptions of our realities. With its intense sense of light, Le retour is almost the stained glass window of Surrealism.
The motif in Le retour in fact featured seldom in Magritte's work, although birds reappear throughout, reincarnated in stone or as plants. The first instance seems to be in an oil dated 1940, also named Le retour and now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels, which shows a sky-bird swooping down to a nest filled with impossibly solid eggs, while one of the last versions was the more minimal L'oiseau de ciel, painted in 1966. It is because of the latter work that the sky-bird, though not used extensively in Magritte's work, is nonetheless one of the most recognisable of his images, as for many years it was used as a motif by Sabena, the Belgian national airline, and was sold by them in a swirl of publicity earlier this year. In that work, the sky is hardly articulated, and while its vertical format gives more of a sense of lift, Le retour's horizontality lends it a feeling of cruising satisfaction. The sea and the horizon conspire to fill the work with a sense of depth and perspective reminiscent of the Romantic landscape tradition, wholly suited to the wistful nature of the image.