William N. Copley, New York (acquired from the above)
Private Collection (by descent from the above. Sold: Sotheby’s, London, 5th February 2002, lot 39)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Suzi Gablik, Magritte, London, 1970, fig. 167, another cast illustrated p. 178
Abraham M. Hammacher, René Magritte, New York, 1973, fig. 59, another cast illustrated p. 54
Jacques Meuris, René Magritte, London, 1988, fig. 313, another cast illustrated p. 203
Suzi Gablik, Magritte, London, 1991, no. 214, another cast illustrated p. 180
David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. III, no. 1093, another cast illustrated p. 465
Edward James in a letter to René Magritte, 16th January 1938
Fragmentation of the human body and depiction of isolated body parts is not only an important theme in the work of René Magritte, but also one that expresses the essence of Surrealism in general. It contains two concepts central to Surrealist art: that of desire and fetishism, as in the works of, amongst others, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, and that of threat and violence, such as in the early sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. Magritte’s use of such imagery and body parts, however, is rarely violent. Rather than evoking a mutilation of a human body, he uses its segments in the same way he would isolate a segment of a landscape or an object and place it in a different, unexpected environment.
The five senses feature frequently in Magritte’s œuvre. The present sculpture, depicting two noses, lips, an ear and an eye stacked one upon the other, was based on a group of paintings and gouaches from 1937, and is most closely related to the oval-shaped canvas of the same title (fig. 4). In the first composition from this series (fig. 2), Magritte placed each of the organs in one quarter of a compartmentalised picture plane, before stacking them on top of a fragmented body of a female nude (fig. 3). In the oval-shaped oil which inspired the present bronze (fig. 4), the facial features were isolated from the rest of the body and presented as a stand-alone figure.
The celebrated British poet and Surrealist collector and patron Edward James first made the analogy between the most imposing version of Magritte’s 1937 La race blanche (fig. 3), which he saw at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris in 1938, and Picasso’s equally fragmented bathers (fig. 5). In a letter to Magritte of January 1938, James wrote: ‘The picture with nose, ears, belly, etc. positioned like the stones of a dolmen is a great success as regards composition, imagination and strong, simple strangeness – in the style of certain pictures by Picasso, of rather cruelly distorted human forms […] in a setting of sky and sea. But yours are not distorted in themselves; they challenge us, demand our attention through their disintegration. Picasso’s forms, that I am thinking of […] cry with strangled throats; yours are reading aloud’ (E. James, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), op. cit., vol. II, p. 252).
Shortly before his death, Magritte, in conversation with his dealer Alexandre Iolas, conceived the idea of making a series of sculptures based on imagery of his paintings. Eight paintings were chosen and Magritte made working drawings for each sculpture. Full-scale models were cast in wax at the Gibiesse Foundry in Verona before being finally cast in bronze. During his last visit to Verona on 23rd June 1967, Magritte modified and retouched certain parts of the works and finally signed the wax sculptures. Magritte died before the bronzes were cast later in the year, each in an edition of five, plus one artist’s proof which belonged to his widow Georgette. A set of all eight bronzes was exhibited at Alexandre Iolas’s gallery in Paris in February 1969, a year and a half after the artist’s death. Georgette Magritte’s cast of La race blanche remained in her collection until her death in 1986 and was subsequently included in the sale of the contents of Magritte’s studio at Sotheby’s London, where it was acquired by the Communauté Française de Belgique.
The present bronze of La race blanche once formed part of the collection of William N. Copley (1919-1996), who was a patron and friend of René Magritte, as well as a philanthropist and an artist in his own right. Introduced to Surrealism in the 1940s, Copley embraced the freedom it offered, and through his fellow American Man Ray, he met Duchamp and other Surrealist artists. While his eponymous Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills was a short-lived venture – opening in 1948 and closing down the following year – it staged six now-legendary exhibitions of Magritte, Tanguy, Matta, Cornell, Man Ray and Ernst. It was also at this time that Copley started his magnificent collection of Surrealist art, which included masterpieces by Ernst, Man Ray and Miró, as well as several other Magritte bronzes.
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