Georgette Magritte, Brussels
A gift from the above to the present owner in 1983
Depicted either with her eyes closed, or with her head turned away from the viewer or, as in the present work, with blank eyes resembling those of a marble sculpture, the nude becomes the passive object of the spectator’s gaze and erotic desire. ‘Magritte said, in fact, that an undercurrent of eroticism was one of the reasons a painting might have for existing. It asserted itself most intensely and explicitly in these stately classical nudes with their cool coloring. For the very reason that it aims at maximum resemblance, their academicism is upset by the provocation of mystery emanating from that identification, once the painting and the arrangement of the painting interfere with its course. The prime example is Black Magic [fig. 1]’ (ibid., p. 76).
The subject of this work became one of Magritte’s favourite images in the 1940s, and he used it in several oils and works on paper. He varied the position of the nude, depicting her frontally or in profile, sometimes holding a rose, and other times, as in the present work, with a dove resting on her shoulder. While Magritte gave these pictures various titles, the one most often used is La magie noire, which was found, as was often the case, by Paul Nougé, a Belgian poet and friend of Magritte’s. Writing about Magritte’s first painting on the theme of Black Magic, executed in 1934 (D. Sylvester, op. cit., vol. II, no. 355), David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield observed: ‘Those pretty colours serve an image-making as well as a decorative purpose: the top half of the nude is painted a gradated blue, near enough that of the sky behind; from the waist down, the colour is a flesh tone. It is a process of metamorphosis. “Black magic. It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky”’ (ibid., vol. II, p. 187).
Writing about the various versions on this theme in Magritte’s art, the authors of the Catalogue Raisonné have commented: ‘The changes had been constantly rung on whether the nude was seen frontally or in profile, whether her eyes were open or shut, whether or not there was a dove on her shoulder, a rose in her hand, sea in the background, a broken wall to one side, and whether or not her body was two toned. […] in any version that was called “La magie noire” the body was invariably two-toned, touched by that act of black magic transformation of flesh into sky’ (ibid., p. 188).
The present composition is closely related to the 1934 oil, both in the position of the nude figure and in the rendering of the background, which is at the same time an interior and exterior. A characteristic wood-panelled wall, which appears often in Magritte’s imagery, is broken to reveal a non-descript landscape behind it, consisting of a still sea and a cloudless sky. Later in the decade, Magritte transformed this image by replacing the standing nude with a three-part torso, thus further reducing the image of a woman to a man-made object, evoking a sculpture despite her naturalistic flesh tone (fig. 2). In creating this eerie sense of displacement, Magritte has transformed the traditional subject of a nude in a landscape into a mysterious, magical composition.
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