Jacques Meuris, Magritte, London, 1988, p. 134
"Before beginning its career in the service of mankind, the chair rests in its own bosom," commented the artist's friend Marcel Mariën on seeing this enigmatic image (quoted in D. Sylvester, S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, eds., op. cit., p. 152). La Légende des siècles establishes a dialogue between the monumental stone-age chair, presented as a natural phenomenon within a desolate landscape, and the tiny human-made version seated upon it. The present work is the third and most complex oil version on this theme that Magritte painted in 1950; the largest of the three versions is in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (see fig. 1). Compared with the Edinburgh variant which is the purest, most pared-down of the group, the present composition is enriched by the addition of rocks scattered on the ground and more prominent clouds in the sky.
A frequent element in Magritte’s iconography, the rock often appears as a giant boulder suspended in mid-air, or as an ordinary element, such as a figure, a landscape or a still-life, fossilized into stone. In La Légende des siècles the gigantic stone chair and the rocks scattered around it imbue the work with a primeval, timeless quality, in stark contrast to the temporary character of the clouds moving across the sky, and in juxtaposing this imagery Magritte subverts the viewer’s perception of the continuity of time and space. As Sarah Whitfield commented on Magritte’s compositions depicting a rock in a landscape: "Magritte distances himself from the two givens of the landscape painting—time and place—and risks an art of pure reflection and contemplation. It is as abstract in its conception as a work by Rothko, who was one of the first to remark upon the abstract qualities of Magritte’s art" (S. Whitfield in Magritte (exhibition catalogue), The Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, n.p.).
The stillness of the setting and the solidity of the rock indicate a faraway, metaphysical landscape largely unstirred by human presence. Writing about this sense of tranquility in Magritte’s paintings, Roger Shattuck commented: "I know of no painting that conveys so totally the sense of a universe in suspense, a universe in which everything is waiting and nothing moves" (R. Shattuck, "This is not René Magritte" in Artforum, New York, September 1966, p. 35). This stillness, however, is disturbed by the small man-made chair, which implies man’s presence while at the same time being made unattainable both by its positioning and its tiny size.
In a letter to Paul Nougé of January 1948, Magritte wrote that the solid nature of a stone has an affinity with the mental and physical makeup of a human being. Putting this idea into practice, he executed paintings such as Le Monde invisible, in which a large rock replaces a figure seated in front of the window (see fig. 2). In other versions of his rock paintings, an everyday image such as an apple or a fish is turned into stone, an idea that culminated in a series of petrified landscapes and interiors such as Souvenir de voyage (see fig. 3).
According to the authors of the Catalogue Raisonné, the title chosen for this series of works, "which is taken from Victor Hugo, appeared on a list of possible titles drawn up by Magritte in a letter to Mariën of July 1944. Both Magritte and Mariën claimed to have applied it to this particular image, an image described by Magritte (on the back of a drawing of 1958) as 'a red chair on a stone chair eroded by time'" (ibid., p. 152). The present version of La Légende des siècles was first exhibited in 1951 at Galerie Dietrich et Lou Cosyn in Brussels, where it was acquired by Jean Debernardi, a friend of the artist’s brother Raymond Magritte. The painting has remained in the same family collection to the present day.
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