Paul-Gustave van Hecke, Brussels (a gift from the above in March 1962)
Harry Torczyner, New York
Private Collection, Zurich (acquired by 1966)
Sale: Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 14th May 1980, lot 239A
Shusaku Arakawa & Madeline Gins, New York (acquired by 1992; until at least 2000)
Galerie Hopkins Custot, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006
Knokke, Casino Communal, XVe Festival Belge d'Eté: L'Œuvre de René Magritte, 1962, no. 21, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1928)
Bern, Kunsthalle, Phantastische Kunst - Surrealismus, 1966, no. 69 (as dating from 1928-29)
Tel Aviv, The Tel Aviv Museum, Le Surréalisme, 1966-67, no. 51 (as dating from 1928-29)
Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, René Magritte, 1996-97, no. 37, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art & San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Magritte, 1999-2000, no. 10 (in Humlebæk); no. 25 (in San Francisco), illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Vienna, Kunstforum & Basel, Fondation Beyeler, René Magritte. Der Schlüssel der Träume, 2005, no. 23, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
David Sylvester (ed.) & Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1992, vol. I, no. 192, illustrated p. 253
Retrospective Magritte (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Art, Mitsukoshi; Museum of Modern Art, Hyogo & Museum of Art, Fukuoka, 1994-95, illustrated p. 72
Josef Helfenstein in Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013-14, p. 72
La Preuve mystérieuse exemplifies Magritte’s celebrated body of work known as ‘word-paintings’, the majority of which were executed between 1927 and 1931, and to which he returned sporadically throughout his life. The central theme of Magritte’s word-paintings is his concern with linguistic and pictorial systems of representation and the arbitrary structure of language. In some of these compositions he couples randomly chosen words and images, thereby exposing the relationship between any object and its name as an arbitrarily established one, since the correlation between any word and the thing it stands for exists only by virtue of semantic convention. In the present work, as in L’Apparition (fig. 1) and Le Sens propre II (fig. 2), the objects are replaced by shapes that bear words which are supposed to signify their identity. By presenting words in new, unexpected contexts, Magritte subverts the usual meanings attached to objects, and reveals the oversimplifications and misconceptions so deeply rooted in our everyday visual and written language.
The year 1927 was a crucial point in the development of Magritte’s art: in April-May he had his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels, about which he would later recall: ‘It was my first exhibition that truly represented what I consider valuable […] in my work’ (quoted in Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013-14, p. 232). In September of that year Magritte and his wife Georgette moved to the Parisian suburb Perreux-sur-Marne where they would stay for three years, during which time the artist took part in the activities of the Paris-based Surrealist group and frequently saw Paul Eluard, Breton, Miró and Arp, among others. Shortly after the move to Paris, Magritte created his first word-painting, La Clef des songes, now in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Berlin. According to the catalogue raisonné, the present work was probably painted in November or December 1927.
Discussing La Preuve mystérieuse, the authors of the Magritte catalogue raisonné commented: ‘It is probably the most palpable case in Magritte’s work of the influence of Miró, whom he used to see regularly in Paris. The free, vaguely biomorphic, shapes hung in space recall many of Miró’s “dream-paintings” of 1925-6, while the use of such forms in conjunction with words and phrases echoes the “picture-poems” [fig. 3]’ (D. Sylvester (ed.) & S. Whitfield, op. cit., p. 253). However, while in Miró’s ‘dream-paintings’ the beautifully executed, calligraphic script augments the poetic quality of painting, Magritte’s use of plain lettering emphasises a more philosophical idea underlying these compositions. Josef Helfenstein wrote: ‘Magritte incorporated the written word into the act of painting as a means of deconstructing and redefining both image and language, in an attempt to nettle the problem of representation. Refusing to confer a subordinate role to either written or visual representation, and instead using language and image to disrupt one another, to upend logic, Magritte engages the revolutionary potential of both. Painting is thus redefined as an analytical, critical instrument, challenging perception and activating the mind of the viewer’ (J. Helfenstein in ibid., p. 76).
La Preuve mystérieuse is notable for its distinguished provenance. For several decades it belonged to E.L.T. Mesens, a Belgian artist, writer and musician whom Magritte met in 1920. The two shared their enthusiasm for avant-garde art and in the early 1920s developed an interest in Dada. A lifelong friend of Magritte, Mesens was instrumental in promoting Surrealism both in Belgium and internationally; he organised, among others, the first Surrealist exhibition in Belgium in 1934, as well as the now celebrated International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. In 1962 Mesens gifted the work to Paul-Gustave van Hecke, a Belgian journalist and writer, and owner of the Galerie L’Epoque, through which he promoted Magritte’s art. It later belonged to Torczyner, one of Magritte’s most prominent patrons. After being sold at auction in New York in 1980, the painting entered the collection of the New York-based avant-garde architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins.
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