Impressionist & Modern Art

The Silence and Mystery of Magritte’s Le Toit du monde

By Sotheby's

P ainted in 1926, Le Toit du monde, which features in the Modernités: de Rodin à Soulages sale in Paris on 19 October, belongs to the first cycle of Surrealist paintings by Belgian artist René Magritte.

This spectacular work possesses an exceptional provenance, which reflects its quality and its importance in art history. It belonged to the renowned Galerie Le Centaure, which played a key role in the promotion of Surrealism in the 1920s and also to the famous collector Eugène Flagey. It then found its way into the collection of legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren and her husband, film producer Carlo Ponti. More recently, it was owned by the Italian curator and art historian Franco Russoli, who was the director of the Pinacoteca Brera, one of the most prestigious institutions in Italy.


According to Magritte, he began working in a Surrealist vein in 1926 with Le jockey perdu when he was still in Brussels and just before moving to Paris. Painted a short time afterwards, Le Toit du monde is characteristic of Magritte’s Surrealist compositions, imprinted with silence and mystery.

This enigmatic painting is deprived of any human figures and depicts a violin emerging from an anthropomorphic table on a honeycombed floor. This scene is depicted against a background of distant mountains covered by a dense black network, evocative of both a volcanic eruption of lava and the network of human veins and arteries. Le Toit du monde is the first painting by the artist to use the image of the human circulatory system, a stylistic pattern which would mark some of his most emblematic compositions of 1927, such as Le Sang du monde or Paysage. This motif doubtless found its source in the profession of Paul Nougé, a close friend of the painter, who alongside his activity as a poet and writer, also worked in a laboratory. The biological experiments undertaken by Paul Nougé, and in particular the use of a microscope, allowing for the infinitely small to take on a monumental dimension, strongly influenced the works of the young Magritte.

Paul Nougé was one of Magritte’s closest friends at the time. He was the one who most often gave titles to Magritte’s paintings during the evenings organised for this purpose. He was also at the origin of the theory of “disturbing objects”, which would play a fundamental role in the emergence of Surrealism in Brussels. This theory consisted, in an approach close to Lautréamont, in the association of unrelated objects to create a disturbing result that plays on their material and size.

In the present painting the different elements of Nougé’s theory can be found. The miniscule and the invisible (the network of veins) acquire a monumental dimension, as if seen through a microscope, becoming the decoration of the composition. The pink honeycombed floor was also doubtless a biological reference, inspired by images of human cell tissue in the illustrated magazines of the time. This motif can be found in several paintings of this period, in particular the Portrait de Paul Nougé painted in 1927. The enigmatic association of a violin, a table and a human leg throws the spectator directly into the heart of the theory of “disturbing objects” with elements taken from the real world and re-contextualized haphazardly so that the spectator questions the strangeness of the world that surrounds him. The origins of La Trahison des Images can be found here: is the pipe really a pipe?

This commanding painting draws the spectator into the heart of the poetic enigma that constitutes the work of Magritte, for whom “art must evoke the mystery without which the world would not exist”.

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