– René Magritte, interview with Maurice Bots, 1951
Painted in 1948, Le Cicérone is an enigmatic encapsulation of key themes Magritte had incorporated into his art during the decades prior. The Belgian artist, who bolstered his credentials as a leading avant-garde artist for a brief time in Paris, would continue to incorporate his signature cooptation of imagery and mysterious juxtapositions in his work until his death in 1967.
The present composition features a number of motifs familiar to Magritte’s oeuvre, with its curious protagonist theatrically posed beside a moonlit ledge overlooking the water. The anthropomorphic figure—which Magritte referred to as his bilboquet—dons a red cape and appears to gaze toward the crescent moon above, a leaf adroitly clasped in hand. Ostensibly the titular Cicérone or guide, this figure seems to seek solace in the light of the moon, perhaps navigating the course of his travels like a crimson-caped legionnaire might have done in ancient Rome.
However fanciful such readings of Magritte’s work may be, the artist famously rejected interpretation of his scenes, occasionally deriding those who posited such explanations. In 1961 Magritte wrote to his friend André Bosmans about a related picture (see fig. 1), stating: “A recent experience has made me aware of the gap between intelligences: I have just heard an ‘explanation’ of a picture I painted. I mean Les Droits de l’homme (The Rights of Man). It would appear that the fire we see in the picture is Prometheus, but also a symbol of war! The character holding a leaf in his hand I supposed to ‘represent’ peace—the leaf is supposed to be an olive leaf!!! Thus, this picture, etc… I’ll stop because the imagination of amateurs of painting is inexhaustible, but very banal, since such amateurs lack any inspiration whatsoever” (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte, Ideas and Images, New York, 1966, p. 153).
While tidy explications might prove antithetical to Magritte’s impetus, one can identify a number of visual sources in the artist’s work. Fond of the illustrations found in the 1922 Larousse Universel—a favored encyclopedia of the 20th century—Magritte often incorporated not only the names or definitions of an object, but also the images which accompanied them, quite faithfully transposing selected drawings from the book to his compositions. The chess-like bilboquet, which first appeared in the artist’s work around 1926 and which takes center stage in the current composition, is likely derived from the French stick-and-ball game by the same name, illustrated in Larousse (see fig. 2). The ambiguous and unassuming bilboquet likely appealed to Magritte for its potential uses; as Ann Umland states, “It was a form with multivalent connotations, ranging from mannequins to balusters or table legs to chess pieces, and it would become one of Magritte’s stock elements, a distinctive ‘type’ that could be multiplied, resized and repositioned ad infinitum, each time slightly differently, posing a provocative challenge to prevailing definitions of originality in art” (A. Umland in The Mystery of the Ordinary (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013, p. 28).
As a proper noun, Bilboquet also refers to a character from the Saltimbanques—a popular circus troupe who performed throughout Europe—the archetypes of which would surface in the works of artists as varied as Daumier and Picasso (see fig. 3). In this context, the evolution from Magritte’s headless bilboquets of his earlier days to the more clearly anthropomorphic figures of the 1940s toys with the term’s dual meaning, recalling the Surrealist proclivity for wordplay. At times the headless bilboquet form, often placed in tandem with variants of the shape or placed on a black and white checked surface, also evokes the game of chess—an intellectual pastime and artistic motif shared with other major Surrealists and often seen as a psychoanalytic metaphor for life.
The myriad visual sources within Le Cicérone, including the stone ledge, crescent moon, placid water, sole leaf, red cloak and bilboquet recur throughout Magritte’s career, taking on new arrangements in every iteration and affirming the artist’s tireless experimentation. The luminous crescent moon which the protagonist appears to contemplate (if not address directly), would later feature in some of Magritte's strongest works including Le Chef d'oeuvre ou les Mystères de l'horizon (see fig. 4). There three crescent moons appear as if pasted low onto the sky just above each man, acting as his personal attribute. During this time, Magritte also created a versions with single figures or other symbolic motifs. Talking about this subject, Magritte wrote in a letter to Gaston Puel dated March 3, 1955: "I am certain of the value of certain images, such as 'The schoolmaster' or 'The masterpiece' for instance, because, while they may be of little interest to aesthetes, as poetic images they are the best to be found in the world" (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., vol. III, p. 239).
Magritte’s inextricable enmeshment and recontextualization of recognizable symbols, present in this work and throughout his oeuvre, cements the artist’s legacy as one of history’s most accomplished Surrealists, his psychologically tantalizing subjects enduring long after the movement’s genesis in the 1920s.
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