A Patch of Blue: René Magritte’s 'Galatée'

A Patch of Blue: René Magritte’s 'Galatée'

As Sotheby's presents 'Galatée', a mesmerising example of René Magritte's late-period work in June 2022's Modern & Contemporary Day Auction, Dr An Paenhuysen gazes heavenwards in search of the deep blue infinite abysses that obsessed Magritte over the course of a 40-year career.
As Sotheby's presents 'Galatée', a mesmerising example of René Magritte's late-period work in June 2022's Modern & Contemporary Day Auction, Dr An Paenhuysen gazes heavenwards in search of the deep blue infinite abysses that obsessed Magritte over the course of a 40-year career.

I n Galatée, René Magritte offers us the sky at its best: a blue space with white clouds. Although the Belgian Surrealist lived in a predominantly grey and overcast country, his painted skies were usually blue. In a 1938 talk, La Ligne de Vie (The Line of Life), Magritte explained his 'bleu du ciel', as being motivated by a desire to represent objects in a detached way, without the interference of personal taste.

“I used, for example, light blue where it was necessary to represent the sky, unlike bourgeois painters who represent the sky by taking the opportunity to show this kind of blue, next to that kind of grey, of their preference. I find that these poor little preferences do not concern us and that these artists offer, with the greatest seriousness, a very ridiculous spectacle'. The perfect blue sky, dotted with white clouds, became one of the iconic Magritte references, together with bowler hats, umbrellas, birds, windows, eggs, and rocks, to name but a few.

René Magritte: Galatée ESTIMATE: 800,000 - 1,200,000 GBP



Within Galatée, we can see a chain of predecessors that led up to this particular masterwork, dated to 1952 by the artist but actually painted in 1964 – the deliberate erroneous dating designed to bypass his then-dealer Alexander Iolas. In 1928/1929, for example, the blue sky made its appearance in the composition Le Palais de Rideaux III (The Palace of Curtains III), in which Magritte freed the words from the connection to the object they represent. Two angular, shaped panels opposed a patch of blue sky with the word ciel in neat, black script. Also in 1929, Le Faux Miroir (The False Mirror) depicted an eye, in which the iris is filled with blue sky and clouds. From then on, the sunlit sky traversed by clouds has made consistent appearances in Magritte’s oeuvre, from covering the death mask of the French Emperor Napoleon in 1932, inverting the idea of back and foreground in 1934’s La Magie Noir (Black Magic), to the study of light and darkness in his L’Empire des Lumières (The Empire of Light), series, which began after the Second World War.

Rene Magritte L'Empire des lumières (1961)

In the 1950s, Magritte’s interest in natural phenomena and physics deepened, with topics such as the subversion of gravity, petrification and magnification being recurring topics of research. His visual symbolism became more focused - no longer did he indulge in such theatrics as presenting the landscape on an easel, within the canvas, as he did in 1934’s La Condition Humaine (The Human Condition).

Instead, emphasis was given to a single element within the composition, endowing it with a specific quality. In the case of Galatée, it is the white cloud hovering in a panorama that, with its low horizon and expansive sky, references 17th century Dutch landscape painting. Some atmospheric clusters in strange shapes are twirling around, but, undisturbed in the centre, drawing the eye, is a rather conventional, fluffy cloud. Indeed, so ordinary and conventional is the cloud’s form, it is paradoxically, almost suspicious - is it quite as ordinary as it might initially appear to be?

'Clouds tend to give space for quiet contemplation, evoking thoughts that drift by, in before disappearing...'

A few years earlier, in 1958, Magritte had used a similar landscape composition in La Bataille d’Aragonne (The Battle of the Argonne), depicting a stone and a cloud suspended in the sky, playing with the contrast between the vaporous and the solid. But in Galatée, the clouds are the only guests in his skyscape. Clouds tend to give space for quiet contemplation, evoking thoughts that drift by, in before disappearing. Here they are pleasantly disturbed, with the central ‘realistic’ cloud, generating dynamic, white wisps of cloud that, with Galatea in mind, might signal an erotic impulse, (can we see a hint of a pipe in that curl? Or maybe, some noses floating around? Both were known fetishes of Magritte).

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, as written down in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who, disappointed by real women, fell in love with Galatea, one of the statues he had carved, who was then brought to life by Aphrodite.

The figure of Galatea made an earlier appearance in Magritte’s work, in 1928. In La Tentative de L’Impossible (Attempting The Impossible) the artist himself is depicted in the process of painting his wife Georgette. While the painter is ‘real’, the figure of the naked woman turns out to be a product of his imagination. Galatea reappears in La Robe de Galatée (The Robe of Galatea) in 1961, depicted as a naked woman, with long hair cascading down her body. But the Galatea of 1964 has vapourised into clouds.

'But isn’t the blue sky the ultimate setting in which to float in between existence and emptiness? The sky exists, has substance, and yet, at the same time it doesn’t...'

But isn’t the blue sky the ultimate setting in which to float in between existence and emptiness? The sky exists, has substance, and yet, at the same time it doesn’t. Rather than seeing the world suspended in a meaningless, dark void, we see it spanned by a recognisable sky in which we perceive a patch of blue.

René Magritte Le Faux Miroir (The False Mirror) (1929)

That Magritte’s painterly philosophy (he personally preferred to be regarded as a thinker, who happened to communicate with paint) still has - and even gains - actuality in the 21st century, comes along with the daunting realisation of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. His Surrealist method consisted of upsetting the order of things (‘a systematic research of a shocking poetic effect’) and he does so by letting our reality slightly oscillate - beautifully so, in Galatée.

One might call the result ‘mysterious’ - but Magritte himself was very clear about what he was doing. In a letter to Michel Foucault in June 1966, who, to Magritte’s great pleasure, had compared him to the Surrealist author Raymond Roussel, he wrote: 'What he imagines, evokes nothing imaginary, it evokes the reality of the world that experience and reason treat in a confused manner.”

René Magritte

Modern & Contemporary Art Auctions

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