“Everything that is visible hides something that is invisible.”
René Magritte

In April 1962 Magritte wrote 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, against a background of dark sky, with the sea in the distance and the beach in the foreground. 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” (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., op. cit., pp. 358-59).

Left: Fig. 1 René Magritte, La Joconde, oil on canvas, 1960, Private Collection © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Right: Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, La Joconde (The Mona Lisa), oil on panel, circa 1503-06, Musée du Louvre, Paris

The “Mona Lisa” to which he refers is his 1962 painting La Joconde which of course takes its title from Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous portrait and was the first time Magritte combined three curtains in this way (see figs. 1 & 2). Magritte was evidently fascinated by this image, returning to it a number of times and exploring its possibilities in different mediums, including as the monumental bronze that is now one of his best-known sculptures. From his letters it is clear that he felt he had achieved something new and special in the present work. Specifically, the juxtaposition of the bright blue sky in the central panel against a more somber background created a new dynamic within the composition.

Magritte wanted to mark the shift in direction with this work by giving it a new and distinct title; he considered the matter over a couple of weeks before writing again to Bosmans: “I am hesitating between ‘The ovation’ and ‘The transmission of thought.’ Scutenaire has pointed out to me that ‘The transmission of thought’ is the exact title, but that it is too heavy to be a happy choice for an image which is both charming and severe. This is a curious case in which the right words have perhaps to be avoided” (ibid.). The crossed-out inscriptions on the reverse are testament to his indecision, but he seems to have finally decided on L’Ovation as the most apt title for this beguiling composition.

Conceived on a large scale, L’Ovation is immediately compelling. The wide horizon of the empty seascapes provides a stage-like setting, a suggestion that is emphasized by the curtains that appear like stage flats in the center of the picture. Through the use of curtains Magritte presents a juxtaposition of opposites—the paradox of concealing and revealing, and the contrast between the natural and the man-made, between interior and exterior settings. By confronting these contrasted elements, the artist evokes the essential Surrealist paradigm of questioning the significance and purpose we attribute to various objects and creating new meanings by placing these objects in new and unexpected contexts.

Left: Fig. 3 René Magritte, Les Mémoires d’un saint, 1960, oil on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Right: Fig. 4 René Magritte, La Lunette d’approche, 1963, oil on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The enigmatic atmosphere of the work is further emphasized by the notable absence of human beings. While the unpopulated seascapes contains nothing that would indicate man’s presence, the central curtain, occupying the focal point of the composition, is suggestive of human form (as Magritte’s first title for this combination—Mona Lisa—also implies). Its sharp-edged shape, filled with the vivid 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. The combination of sky and curtain is one of Magritte’s most successful themes and was of great importance to the artist; as he once told a reporter: “the sky is a form of curtain because it hides something from us. We are surrounded by curtains” (quoted in Magritte (exhibition catalogue), Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, n.p.; see figs. 3-5).

This explanation is only part of Magritte’s fascination with the motif of the curtain. As Jacques Meuris wrote: “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…. 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, Magritte, London, 1988, p. 169).

Fig. 5 Johannes Vermeer, The Love Letter, circa 1669-70, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

There is a further complexity to Magritte’s use of this object. Gisela Fischer writes: “When Magritte commented that ‘we are surrounded by curtains’ he was talking of our awareness that we see the world subjectively, as if through a veil of semblances…. At the same time, its use reflected his conviction that an object needs in some sense to be veiled in order for it to be fully recognized” (G. Fischer in Magritte A to Z, London, 2011, p. 45). Magritte embraced both the traditional use of the curtain—as in the work of the Old Masters it creates spatial contrast—and very personal use in which it comes to symbolize his distrust of representational norms (see fig. 5).

Fig. 6 René Magritte, L’Empire des lumières, 1950, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The presence of the sky within the central curtain-window emphasizes this latter concern. There is a deliberate intensity in the way the stormy clouds of the background are inverted in vivid blue of the curtain as though a new world is opening up beyond. It is one of the truest evocations of Magritte’s “mysterious.” The power of this juxtaposition is to accentuate the brilliance of that main image. Aside from the bowler-hatted man, the white clouds set against a blue sky are probably the artist’s most celebrated creation. They appear throughout his oeuvre from early 1920s canvases to great later works such as the Empire des lumières paintings (see fig. 6). More than this, they have bled into the cultural consciousness, inspiring subsequent generations and becoming an important part of a painterly tradition that begins with artists like Constable and Turner and continues with contemporary practitioners like Roy Lichtenstein and Gerhard Richter (see figs. 7 & 8).

Fig. 8 Gerhard Richter, Wolken (Clouds), oil on canvas, 1970, Museum Folkwang, Essen © 2020 Gerhard Richter

The combination of two of Magritte’s most important motifs in such a powerful and impressive way marks L’Ovation out amongst his very best works. His precise and realistic style—the clouds and beach are really remarkably detailed—makes the essential drama of the composition all the more surprising and we are drawn ineluctably into his world. Magritte famously said, “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist”; rarely has that been more purely expressed than in the present work.

Three years after L’Ovation was finished it was acquired by Jean and Dominique de Menil and joined one of the USA’s most prestigious private art collections. The de Menils had begun to collect art in the mid-1940s and by 1965 had established a renowned collection that spanned all the great artistic movements of the twentieth century, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Their home in Houston was not only a place to display their art but also a salon to which they invited the leading artists and writers of the day including René Magritte. They were pioneers in their collecting habits and tastes, and their focus on Surrealism in particular would prove crucial in familiarizing a wider American audience with the art and artists of the movement. Much of their Surrealist collection (including the present work) was purchased from or through the gallerist Alexander Iolas who was another important champion of the movement in the United States. Along with Max Ernst, Magritte was arguably the Surrealist artist who most captured their imagination; over the years they amassed the largest and most significant private collection of the artist’s work, much of which can been seen today at The Menil Collection in Houston.