Magritte’s visual lexicon stemmed from the Surrealist impetus and was predicated on the dreamlike decontextualization of familiar objects. At the time of James Thrall Soby’s writing of the exhibition catalogue for the 1965 Magritte exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art (in which the present work was displayed), the author reached out to a long-time friend of Magritte, Harry Torczyner regarding the derivation of such mysterious imagery. By way of explanation, Torczyner replied: "The chess-like figures are transfigurations of what Magritte calls a bilboquet, sometimes used in the cup-and-ball game. As Magritte has always been an avid chess player, we get the crossing of a chess figure with a bilboquet and the result is a strange creature with wicked snout" (quoted in J.T. Soby, René Magritte (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 12-13). The alternately endearing and “wicked” creature appears in its anthropomorphic form as early as 1945 in works like Les Rencontres naturelles (S.595), with the addition of fire in Le Cicérone of 1947 (see fig. 3).
The reclining bilboquet—recalling at once a red-caped Roman legionnaire and a Renaissance nude—holds aloft a single leaf which in itself was the subject of a number of Magritte’s compositions (see fig. 4). In a letter to André Breton in 1934, Magritte commented: “I am trying at the moment to discover what it is in a tree that belongs to it specifically but which would run counter to our concept of a tree” (quoted in David Sylvester, ed., op. cit., vol. II, p. 194). He soon found the answer...in the motif of the tree-leaf: “the tree, as the subject of a problem, became a large leaf the stem of which was a trunk directly planted in the ground” (ibid., p. 194). The large bell near the head of the bilboquet too finds resonance in numerous compositions including the cloudy-skied Grelots roses, ciels en lambeaux from 1930 (see fig. 5)—the use of which was opaquely explained by Magritte in 1940: “In my paintings I showed objects situated where we never find them. It was the realization of a real, if not actually conscious desire existing in most people… I caused the iron bells hanging from the necks of our admirable horses to sprout like dangerous plants at the edge of an abyss” (quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, op. cit., p. 183). The largest iteration of the themes glimpsed in the present work came in 1953 with the artist’s commission for a grand mural at the Knokke Casino in Belgium. The second of the series of Le Domaine enchanté panels presents a similar scene to that of Cosmogonie élémentaire with its cubed and cloud-dotted sky as a backdrop for Georgette, Magritte’s wife, as stand-in for the central figure of the bilboquet, albeit without the fire of his earlier compositions (see figs. 6 & 7).
The Belgian painter was first inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love, a reproduction of which was shown to Magritte by a friend in 1922 (see fig. 8). Upon seeing de Chirico’s otherworldly dislocation of reality, the young Magritte was moved to tears, and the incident forever changed the artist’s trajectory. Inspired as well by the Surrealist poetry of Paul Éluard and the innovative collage of Max Ernst (see fig. 9), Magritte relocated to the suburbs of Paris in 1927, having recently formed the Belgian Surrealist circle with L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé, Camille Geomans and André Souris in Brussels. This brief stay in Paris resulted in his most prolific period, witnessing the birth of the artist’s visual and linguistic glossary and with it the creation of his word-paintings. Though his works were (like his contemporaries’), enigmatic and deeply conceptual, Magritte’s precise execution and methodical reimagination of quotidian objects and settings put the artist at odds with his fellow Surrealists who privileged the automatic impulse above all else. “Magritte focused on familiar, yet idiosyncratic, subject matter, and honed a painting style that was decidedly readable. At the same time, his works questioned the logic of language and meaning, and exacerbated the puzzles of representation… Magritte never fully embraced the automatist techniques that were championed by Breton and practiced, to varying degrees by the artists surrounding him—including Arp, Ernst, André Masson, Miró, and Yvès Tanguy. Indeed, Magritte was suspicious of the 'so-called spontaneity' and the mediumistic aspect of such techniques” (J. Helfenstein & C. Elliott, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013, p. 72).
The present work first belonged to the charismatic gallerist Alexander Iolas who championed the late works of Magritte, Ernst and Picasso among many other artists, and who was instrumental in bringing Surrealism to America (see fig. 10). Iolas later sold the work to renowned collector Christophe de Menil, daughter of John and Dominque de Menil who mounted the then-largest exhibition of Magritte’s work in the United States in 1964 (see fig. 11). Dominique, who arranged for the exhibition and helped direct its installation at the Arkansas Art Center (where the present work was exhibited), wrote to the artist after the show: “Neither telegram nor letter could ever express the emotion that I felt while living for a few days in the intimacy of about 100 of your works… We did a very sober installation, putting each painting in relief. Some were hung alone. Others were grouped in a sublime duet or the murmur of an indecipherable message… It completely mystified us” (quoted in T. Papanikolas, Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 90).
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