Galerie Hopkins Custot, Paris
Private Collection (acquired from the above. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 19th June 2006, lot 43)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Letter from Magritte to Barnet Hodes, 18th December 1961
David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte. Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1994, vol. IV, no. 1645, illustrated p. 316
Writing about Magritte’s papiers collés, Sarah Whitfield observed: ‘The principles of collage, which he continued to employ with the same rigorous logic throughout his career, were ideally suited to an artist who saw the real world in the same abstract terms as he saw his own painting. Everything appeared to him as flat as a scene on a painted backdrop. "Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature, I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me", he wrote in 1938. "I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon." The way he invariably plots out a space through the use of simple screening devices such as walls, stage flats, frames, mirrors, paper cut-outs and so on, rather than through traditional perspective, derives from the synthetic Cubism in de Chirico’s ‘metaphysical’ interiors as well as from his own early experiments with a quasi-cubist style’ (S. Whitfield, Magritte (exhibition catalogue), The Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, pp. 13 & 15).
According to the catalogue raisonné, the present work is one of six papier collés (D. Sylvester (ed.), op. cit., nos. 1643-1648) which Magritte executed towards the end of 1961 and sent to the Chicago collector Barnet Hodes in December of that year. All six contained sheet music cut in the shape of an everyday image, in the case of the present work the silhouette of a bowler-hatted man, the single most iconic motif of Magritte’s œuvre. This image first appeared in his painting of 1926 titled Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, in which the man is seen from the back, against a dark evening landscape, and it culminated in the celebrated Golconde of 1953. Used in a number of paintings and gouaches throughout the artist’s career (fig. 1), the bowler-hatted man appears in various guises. He is sometimes depicted from the back, sometimes from the front with his face obscured by an object placed in front of it, as a dark contour faintly visible against the night sky, or fossilised into a block of stone. Often he is no more than a silhouette, providing a frame in which another subject is depicted. What is common to all of them is the fact that the man remains impersonal, an individual transformed into a universal object.
L’Usage de la parole is closely linked to Magritte’s celebrated body of work known as ‘word-paintings’ (fig. 2). The majority of these were executed between 1927 and 1931, but he returned to the subject 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. 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. By presenting words in new, unexpected contexts, Magritte subverts the usual meanings attached to them, and reveals the oversimplifications and misconceptions that are deeply rooted in our everyday habits of language and communication.
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