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Impressionist & Modern Art

Magritte's Surrealist Masterpiece, 'La magie noire'

By Aleksandra Todorovic
Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale on 19 June features a Surrealist masterpiece by the celebrated painter René Magritte, his 1946 La magie noire .

L a magie noire of 1946 is one of the most elegant examples of the now-celebrated theme that preoccupied Magritte in the 1940s: the female nude in an unidentified landscape.

The model for this series was the artist's wife, Georgette Berger, and her image is depicted in a classical manner. Abiding by the laws of conventional beauty and proportion, she resembles a marble sculpture or a mythical figure as much as a live model.

“…stone is associated with an “attachment” to the earth. It does not rise up of its own accord; you can rely on its remaining faithful to the earth’s attraction. Woman, too, if you like. From another point of view the hard existence of stone […] and the mental and physical system of a human being are not unconnected.”
Rene Magritte, quoted in Jacques Meuris, 'Rene Magritte'

This traditional representation, however, is challenged by the figure’s unexpected colouration: her upper body, in contrast to her lower, gradually acquires the tone of the sky behind her, becoming otherworldly as her lower half remains terrestrial. In nearly all paintings from this group, the woman has one hand resting on a block of stone. As Magritte explained: “One idea is that stone is associated with an “attachment” to the earth. It does not rise up of its own accord; you can rely on its remaining faithful to the earth’s attraction. Woman, too, if you like. From another point of view the hard existence of stone […] and the mental and physical system of a human being are not unconnected” (Rene Magritte, quoted in Jacques Meuris, René Magritte).

In depicting the nude according to the classical ideals of beauty, Magritte transforms Georgette’s image into a modern-day Venus. Depicted either with her eyes closed, or with her head turned away from the viewer or, as in the present work, with blank eyes resembling those of a marble sculpture, the nude becomes the passive object of the spectator’s gaze and erotic desire. “Magritte said, in fact, that an undercurrent of eroticism was one of the reasons a painting might have for existing. It asserted itself most intensely and explicitly in these stately classical nudes with their cool colouring.... "

Magritte et 'Magie noire', 1966
RenÈ Magritte, Magritte et 'Magie noire', 1966, © PhotothËque R. Magritte / Adagp Images, Paris, 2018 RenÈ Magritte

The subject of this work became one of Magritte’s favourite images in the 1940s, and he used it in several oils and works on paper. He varied the position of the nude, depicting her frontally or in profile, sometimes holding a rose, and other times, as in the present work, with a dove resting on her shoulder. While Magritte gave these pictures various titles, the one most often used is La magie noire, which was found, as was often the case, by Paul Nougé, a Belgian poet and friend of Magritte’s. Writing about Magritte’s first painting on the theme of Black Magic, executed in 1934, David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield observe: ‘Those pretty colours serve an image-making as well as a decorative purpose: the top half of the nude is painted a gradated blue, near enough that of the sky behind; from the waist down, the colour is a flesh tone. It is a process of metamorphosis. “Black magic. It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky."

This work was acquired by the artist’s brother Raymond Magritte soon after its execution. Unlike his artistically minded siblings René and Paul, Raymond was a successful businessman, and often supported René by buying his pictures, particularly in the early stages of his career. After Raymond’s death in 1970, La magie noire was inherited by his daughter Arlette, Magritte’s niece, and stayed in her collection until 1993 when she sold it at auction at Sotheby’s New York.

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