Lot 70
  • 70

René Magritte

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 GBP
3,733,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • René Magritte
  • L'explication
  • signed Magritte (lower left); dated 1952 and titled on the reverse
  • oil on canvas


Willy van Hove-Cuche, Brussels (acquired from the artist by 1955)

Private Collection, Italy (acquired by 1971)

Acquired by the present owner circa 1980


Liège, Galerie du Carré, René Magritte, 1953, possibly no. 4

Brussels, La Sirène, Œuvres récentes de René Magritte, 1953, no. 2

La Louvière, Maison des Loisirs, René Magritte exposé, 1954, no. 24

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, René Magritte, 1954, no. 87

Charleroi, Salle de la Bourse, XXXe salon [du] Cercle Royal Artistique et Littéraire de Charleroi - Rétrospective René Magritte, 1956, no. 102

Brussels, Musée d’Ixelles, Magritte, 1959, no. 82

Mons, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Hainaut cinq, 1964, no. 14

Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, René Magritte: het mysterie van de werkelijkhrid/ le mystère de la réalité, 1967, no. 70, illustrated in the catalogue

Stockholm, Moderna Museet, René Magritte, 1967, no. 64, illustrated in the catalogue

Turin, Galleria Gissi, 12 Maestri del Surrealismo, 1971


Letter from Magritte to Marcel Mariën, 26th March 1952, in Magritte Destination, no. 245

Letter from Alexander Iolas to Magritte, 23rd June 1952

Letter from Magritte to Alexander Iolas, 9th July 1952

Letter from Magritte to Marcel Mariën, 27th July 1952, in Magritte Destination, no. 258

Letter from Magritte to Alexander Iolas, 30th July 1952

Letter from Magritte to Alexander Iolas, 8th January 1953

David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. III, no. 783, illustrated p. 202

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1952, Magritte’s L’explication is among his most compelling engagements with the Surrealist interrogation and transformation of the object. The foreground of the composition is dominated by a striking amalgamation of bottle and carrot that sits on a solid wooden table surrounded by examples of its constituent parts. This distinctive combination of objects is an important example of Magritte’s theory of ‘elective affinities’ in which he explored the idea that the combination of two related objects could create a poetic dynamic just as intense as the combination of two completely incongruous objects. As Sarah Whitfield observed: ‘Magritte’s earlier practice had been based on the poetic device practised by the Surrealists of provoking chance encounters between unrelated objects. The revelation that the encounter between two related objects could create an equally intense poetic shock led him to try and pinpoint the mysterious way in which objects relate to one another, to seek out what he called their “elective affinities”’ (S. Whitfield, Magritte (exhibition catalogue), The Hayward Gallery, London, 1992).

The moment of realisation occurred following a dream that Magritte described during a lecture delivered in Antwerp in 1938, ‘One night in 1936, I woke up in a room where there happened to be a bird sleeping in a cage. A splendid misapprehension made me see the cage with the bird gone and replaced by an egg. I had grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, because the shock I experienced was caused precisely by the affinity between the two objects' (the artist quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.) et al., op. cit., vol. II, p. 16). Magritte dates this dream to 1936, perhaps reflecting the vividness of his memory, but in fact he had first experimented with this precise imagery in his 1933 painting Les affinités électives (D. Sylvester, no. 349). Shortly after that he began experimenting with other objects that he felt to have specific connections, and with creating the kind of metamorphosis of objects that we see in the present work. This new area of enquiry would remain an important aspect of his œuvre and the present work, which was painted over twenty years later, represents one of his most impressive explorations of this approach. Indeed, Paul Nougé, surrealist poet and close friend of Magritte, suggested calling the first work on this theme Discours de la méthode, after Descartes, presumably referring to the way the natural connection between the bottle and the carrot exemplifies this theory.

This – almost voluptuous – physical congruence of bottle and carrot is emphasised by Magritte’s decision to place the original objects beside his new creation. The sensual connotations of the bottle find a parallel elsewhere in Magritte’s œuvre. In the early 1940s Magritte began a series of works painted directly onto glass bottles. Although they encompassed a range of familiar motifs, the majority of the bottles were painted with the figure of a nude woman (fig. 4). The shapely suggestiveness of the bottle reflected already in the anthropomorphic nomenclature that gives a bottle a neck and shoulders made it the perfect vessel for the metamorphosis that was a central part of Magritte’s iconography.

The present work is the largest of four variations of this subject (fig. 5), and the only one in which Magritte depicts the objects against a wider background. The stage on which the carrot and bottle are set is framed by a window that is placed slightly off-centre, and is a variation on the parapets and curtained vistas that were a recurring motif in Magritte’s work. Jacques Meuris discussed Magritte’s use of curtains in his compositions, writing: ‘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’ (J. Meuris, Magritte, London, 1988, p. 169).

In the present work the curtains are replaced by shutters and Magritte heightens the effect by placing the objects in the foreground supported by a table, which in this case acts as a parapet. This arrangement was one of central importance in Magritte's œuvre; the shutters initially appear in his celebrated reworking of Manet's Le balcon (figs. 2 & 3) and Magritte evidently felt it to be a successful motif as it recurs in some of the most important works from this period. A letter from Magritte to Marcel Mariën of 27th July 1952 suggests that the window originally looked out onto a landscape inspired by the river Thames in London, but he evidently changed his mind, making a conscious decision to overpaint it with the metal curtain and grelots that we now see. This combination first appeared in Magritte’s work in the 1920s and was among the backdrops that Magritte often used as a means of disconcerting his viewers (fig. 1); however, whereas the forests or skies suggest an implied infinite, the metal wall acts as an impenetrable shutter beyond which nothing can penetrate. In deciding to overpaint the original landscape in this way, Magritte creates another layer of optical illusion within the composition whilst simultaneously constructing a device that emphasises the objects at the heart of the painting.