Filled with the fantasy and enigma that characterises René Magritte’s beguiling form of Surrealism, Le retour au pays natal is almost identical in composition to Melmoth, an oil of the same date (D. Sylvester, no. 900), depicting an owl looking directly at the beholder against a backdrop of highland peaks, while in the middle ground a cyclist traverses the rough, mountainous landscape. Perhaps a personification of the eponymous figure of Melmoth from Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wonderer, the cyclist remains isolated in the centre of the composition and is blissfully ignorant of the presence of the owl. The monolithic figure of the owl, simultaneously growing out of and morphing into the terrain, remains the focal point of the composition, creating a complex interplay between what is real and what is illusory. In a letter to André Bosmans discussing the oil version of the present composition, dated April 25 1959, Magritte wrote: ‘Melmoth is indeed a narrative, as you suppose (the sketch made you think of a stone bird – but the picture shows a live owl). “Chance” is no more operative here than for instance: the figure 5 appearing in the addition of 3 and 2, or the light bathing an object which moves from shadow into the Sun’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés, 1918-1967, Antwerp, 1994, p. 215).
The gouache likely precedes the larger composition in oil, which was painted in February-March 1959. It was first given by René Magritte to his long-term friend, the Surrealist poet Louis Scutenaire, who in turn gifted it to the Brachot family in 1977. The only authority for the title of the present work originates from Scutenaire’s inscription on the verso: ‘Le retour au pays natal For my infinitely dear Christine, Laure, Isadora and Isy Brachot. The bird of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and a cyclist Scut 19 August 1977’.