Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner by 1974
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts & Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Rétrospective Magritte, 1978-79, no. 169, illustrated in the catalogue
Tokyo, Galerie des Arts de Tokyu, Shibuya; Toyama, Musée d'Art de la Préfecture & Kumamoto, Musée d'Art de la Préfecture, René Magritte, 1982, no. 44
Paris, Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles, Hommage à Magritte, 1984-85, no. 32
Lausanne, Fondation de l'Hermitage & Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, René Magritte, 1987-88, no. 112 (in Lausanne); no. 115 (in Munich), illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Jacques Meuris, Magritte, London, 1988, no. 247, illustrated in colour p. 168
David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. III, no. 944, illustrated p. 359
Marcel Paquet, René Magritte: Thought Rendered Visible, Cologne, 2000, illustrated in colour p. 44
Robert Hughes, The Portable Magritte, New York, 2002, illustrated in colour p. 378
The enigmatic atmosphere of the present work is further emphasised by the notable absence of human beings. While the unpopulated stage-like setting contains no elements that would indicate man’s presence, the central curtain, occupying the focal point of the composition, is suggestive of human form. Its sharp-edged shape, filled with the image of a cloudy sky, can be traced back to the paper cut-outs that Magritte first developed in his early drawings and papiers collés of the 1920s. Explaining this amalgamation of the sky and curtain imagery, the artist once told a reporter, ‘the sky is a form of curtain because it hides something from us. We are surrounded by curtains’ (Magritte, quoted in Sarah Whitfield, Magritte (exhibition catalogue), Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, n. p., note to no. 120).
The image of the present work has its origin in Magritte’s oil Les mémoires d’un saint of 1960 (fig. 1), in which a cloud-filled stage set folds at the edges and metamorphoses into a curtain. Later that year, Magritte used the image of three curtains for the first time in the painting La Joconde (fig. 2). Here, the central curtain is filled with a cloudy sky and the curtains are accompanied by a bell instead of the apple, and depicted in a generic interior setting. Evidently satisfied with this image, Magritte returned to it in several works, including L’Image en soi of 1961, a similar composition in oil which he painted for André Breton, as well as the present oil of 1962 and several versions in gouache, one of which now belongs to the French Community of Belgium and is on display at the Musée Magritte in Brussels. Furthermore, he later used this image for a sculpture executed in 1967. Of all the different versions of this image, Le beau monde is arguably the purest and most powerful example.
Jacques Meuris wrote about Magritte’s use of curtains in his compositions: ‘From the very earliest canvases, once Magritte knew what he was doing, drapes were a repeated feature. They appear in both Blue Cinema (1925) and The Lost Jockey (1926), for example. One way of looking at them is as a technical device. They are usually shown with loops, giving them the appearance of open stage drapes, and they enable the artist, through a process of optical illusion, to locate the planes of his image within the pictorial space. Another way of looking at these drapes is as a way of suggesting the fallacious (misleading) nature of the painted picture in relation to what it actually represents. Hence the idea of the stage set, to which the drapes lend emphasis. This is clearly the case with such paintings as High Society [the present work] and La Giaconda (Mona Lisa) [fig. 2]. However, the “meeting of drapes” (Magritte’s phrase) adds a quality of obtrusive accumulation that causes the viewer to see quite different elements that sometimes assume the form of drapes and other drapes that present areas of sky or houses’ (J. Meuris, op. cit., p. 169).
In April 1962 Magritte wrote about a closely related work in a letter to his friend, the poet André Bosmans: ‘I have painted a picture which is a variant of ‘Mona Lisa’, and very astonishing, I think: (blue curtains, one of them with clouds […]. The interest of this image, I think, is – in particular – that it shows the same curtain as one in ‘Mona Lisa’, and again demands some felicitous intellectual effort from us, that is to say it demands that, in addition to other thoughts, we name this image differently from ‘Mona Lisa’’ (D. Sylvester (ed.), op. cit., pp. 358-359). According to the inscriptions on the reverse of the present work, Magritte originally intended to title it Le jardin d’Orphée, but eventually decided against it in favour of Le beau monde, a title that was probably suggested by his poet friend Louis Scutenaire.
According to the authors of the Catalogue Raisonné, Harry Torczyner, one of Magritte’s most prominent patrons, saw the present work at Easter 1962, shortly after its execution, and wanted to buy it from the artist. As Magritte had already sold this picture to Herman and Renée Lachowsky, Torczyner commissioned Magritte to paint another version of it, which resulted in La Peine perdue (fig. 4), completed several months later. The Lachowskys soon afterwards sold Le beau monde to a private collector in whose family the work has remained to this day, during which time it was included in several important international exhibitions.
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