Private Collection, USA (acquired in 1999)
Gallery Sakai, Tokyo
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 2004
David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, London, 1993, vol. III, no. 808, illustrated p. 232
Painted in 1954, Untitled (Two girls walking along a street) is a beguiling variation on this important theme. Magritte conceives a deceptively simple scene composed in the brighter palette and softer brushwork that characterises his post-war painting. The tension comes from his juxtaposition of the extreme normality – the reality – of the suburban background with the ‘sur-reality’ of the two figures. This scene may have been inspired by an occasion recalled in a letter from Marcel Mariën to E.L.T. Mesens: ‘…we went for a walk in the woods, Magritte, Denis and I. We trundled our substance as far as the orifice of the Boitsfort racecourse. There we saw a remarkable sight: a young woman was waiting for the tram in the company of her body’ (M. Mariën quoted in David Sylvester (ed.), op. cit., p. 232). In Untitled (Two girls walking along a street) the young woman is literally accompanied by her body, realised in the naked figure beside her.
In most instances of the double within Magritte’s work – from his 1927 Portrait de Paul Nougé where the figure of the poet is exactly duplicated, to works such as La réproduction interdite (fig. 3) which use the mirror to create a repeated image – the double involves a precise visual replication. Conversely, in the present composition we realise that the two women are not exactly identical, in fact they have different hair and notably different features. Their ‘doubleness’ lies in their similarly vacant, fixed gazes and the orientation of their bodies and more crucially in our preconceptions; as a viewer we expect to see a double in Magritte. He uses the work as a way of questioning the authority of optical vision and interrogating the very act of looking.
As elsewhere in Magritte’s œuvre, the human form in this painting acts as a kind of sign. The artist himself observed: ‘A human being is a visible phenomenon like a cloud, like a tree, like a house, like all the things we see. I do not deny its importance, but even so I do not give it pride of place in the hierarchy of things that the world visibly offers us. In fact, if I portray a person, it is his existence which is in play and not any activity of his’ (quoted in Christoph Grunenberg & Darren Pih (eds.), Magritte A-Z, London, 2011, p. 69). So in the present work Magritte causes us to question the existence of the women; if one is there, can the other possibly exist and if we perceive them as a double, or copy, which is the original? Rosalind Krauss considers this question in her famous essay on Surrealist photography, writing: ‘For it is doubling that elicits the notion that to an original has been added its copy. The double is the simulacrum, the second, the representative of the original. It comes after the first, and in this following, it can only exist as figure, or image. But in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the pure singularity of the first’ (R. Krauss, ‘The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism’, in October, vol. 19, Winter 1981, p. 25). This is one of the questions that Magritte asks in Untitled (Two girls walking along a street) and in leaving that question unanswered he creates a brilliantly enigmatic and powerful work.
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