Le Beau navire belongs to a group of works Magritte executed in the 1940s, depicting a female nude in an unidentified landscape. The woman is painted in a classical manner, abiding by the laws of beauty and proportion, resembling a marble sculpture or a mythical figure as much as a live model. This traditional representation, however, is juxtaposed with the unexpected colouration of the figure, whose upper body gradually acquires the tone of the sky behind her. In nearly all paintings from this group, the woman has one hand resting on a block of stone. As Magritte himself proclaimed: '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' (quoted in Jacques Meuris, René Magritte, London, 1988, p. 76).
The nude is always beautifully painted, her body conforming to the classical ideals of proportion. 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 classical 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 coloring. For the very reason that it aims at maximum resemblance, their academicism is upset by the provocation of mystery emanating from that identification, once the painting and the arrangement of the painting interfere with its course. The prime example is [La Magie noire; fig. 1]' (ibid., p. 76).
The subject of this work became one of Magritte's favourite images in the 1940s, and he used it in several oils, with variations on the position of the nude, which is variably depicted frontally and in profile, sometimes she has a dove resting on her shoulder, and other times, as in the present work, she holds a rose in her hand. While Magritte gave these pictures various titles, the one most often used is La Magie noire. The title of the present work, however, was inspired by a poem by Charles Baudelaire and, as was often the case, was chosen by Magritte's friend and fellow Surrealist Marcel Mariën. Writing about Magritte's first painting on the theme of La Magie noire, executed in 1934 (D. Sylvester, op. cit., no. 355), David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield wrote: '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' (ibid., p. 187).
In some compositions the nude is placed in an environment which is at the same time an interior and exterior (fig. 1). Later in the decade, Magritte transformed this image by replacing the standing nude with a three-part torso, thus further reducing the image of a woman to a man-made object, evoking a sculpture despite her naturalistic flesh tone (fig. 2). The landscape in which the nude is depicted also varies between different versions of the painting. In the majority of the compositions, Magritte depicted a universal, non-descript image of a blue sky and a calm sea. In the present work, however, the background consists of a more dramatic sea-scape, with foamy waves rolling towards the figure. This image of the waves, which Magritte used in several other major works (fig. 3), was inspired by La Vague, a painting by a little known Armenian artist Wartan Mahokian, of which Magritte owned a post-card, squared-up by his hand in order to be transferred onto his canvases (fig. 4). With a remarkable economy of means, Magritte has transformed the traditional subject of a nude in a landscape into a mysterious composition, and it is this Surrealist sense of displacement that makes Le Beau navire a masterpiece of his art.
Fig. 1, René Magritte, La Magie noire, 1945, oil on canvas, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
Fig. 2, René Magritte, La Folie des grandeurs, 1948, oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Fig. 3, René Magritte, Le Château des Pyrénées, 1959, oil on canvas Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Fig. 4, Postcard of La Vague by Wartan Mahokian, squared-up by Magritte, The Art Collection, The First National Bank of Chicago
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