Les surprises et l'océan occupies an interesting position in René Magritte's work; while Magritte had been exposed to Surrealist art and moved to Paris in September 1927, he was not yet part of the French Surrealist circle and received scant notice from the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton. His work of this period, including Les surprises et l'océan, is unique in that it both incorporates elements drawn from the work of other artists but nonetheless exhibits a style unique to Magritte.
Giorgio de Chirico was a strong influence on most of the Surrealists, and Magritte was no exception. It was likely in the summer or autumn of 1923 that Magritte saw a reproduction of de Chirico's Le chant d'amour of 1914 (fig. 1). He was supposedly moved to tears by this painting, particularly its combinations of unrelated objects, writing later, "It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognize his own isolation and hear the silence of the world" (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte: The Silence of the World, New York, 1992, p. 61). In Les surprises et l'océan, a woman lounges on what looks to be a beach, with an ocean in the background and with a table holding long pyramidal objects standing directly behind her. The invention of objects and the temporal and spatial disjunctions also recall the work of Max Ernst, such as Elephant Celebes of 1921 (Spies, no 466; Tate Gallery, London). The influence of Jean Arp is also seen in the biomorphic form of the woman's head. Yet the way in which Magritte's painting incorporates these artists, combined with his iconic deadpan realism and smooth finish, is wholly unique.
Les surprises et l'océan was originally owned by William Copley (1919-1996), an important American dealer, collector, and painter. He likely acquired it from Alexander Iolas, Magritte's New York dealer, or perhaps from the artist himself. Magritte's first exhibition in Southern California was held at the Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills in 1948, and in fact this was also the gallery's first show. Copley showed primarily Surrealist art, including the work of Yves Tanguy and Man Ray; he later claimed that Los Angeles was not ready for Surrealism and that "we were almost totally ignored. We were attacked by most of the critics. And totally unattended" (S. Cochran, "Passing the Hat: René Magritte and William Copley" in Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, exh. cat., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006, p. 76). The Copley Galleries was not a financial success and closed after six months. However, not only did Copley become a painter after this experience, he also began to collect Magrittes, including the famous Treachery of Images of 1929 (LACMA), and met the painter in the early 1950s in Brussels. The two men remained close until Magritte's death in 1967. A foundation established by Copley also published the first English language monograph on Magritte, which included a statement by the artist and a translation of Louis Scutenaire's important essay from 1948. Magritte was a great influence on Copley's own artwork, and as Sara Cochran has pointed out, "Magritte's poetic use of imagery allowed [Copley] to create an autonomous world with an alternative logic in which signs and motifs could take on completely new meanings" (ibid., p. 78).
(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, Le chant d'amour, 1914. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome BARCODE 25238662