Rene Magritte (1898-1967) La folie Almayer (Executed in 1959)

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Lot 18* AR
René Magritte
(Belgian, 1898-1967)
La folie Almayer

£ 300,000 - 500,000
US$ 390,000 - 650,000
René Magritte (1898-1967)
La folie Almayer
signed 'Magritte' (lower right)
gouache on paper
25.1 x 19.4cm (9 7/8 x 7 5/8in).
Executed in 1959


  • Provenance
    Barnet & Eleanor Cramer Hodes Collection, Chicago, by whom commissioned from the artist, July 1959.
    Anon. sale, Christie's, London, 3 December 1996, lot 218.
    Private collection, Hong Kong (acquired at the above sale).

    Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Magritte, 16 March - 30 May 1993, no. 150.

    Letter from Hodes to Magritte, 1 July 1959.
    Letter from Magritte to Hodes, 3 July 1959 (erroneously dated 3 June).
    D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, Vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés 1918 - 1967, London, 1994, no. 1466 (illustrated p. 219).

    La folie Almayer is a variant of the eponymous oil originally painted by Magritte in 1951 and was commissioned as a gouache by the Chicago lawyer and avid collector of the artist, Barnet Hodes. The motif of the ruined tower goes back to some of Magritte's earliest work and was a subject he returned to several times. The present work dates from 1959, with one version painted in 1952 and a further two circa 1960.

    Discussing La folie Almayer, Magritte said in a letter to friend and writer Paul Colinet on 9 May 1951, that it formed the solution to a creative impasse he had recently been struggling with, and specifically the problem of 'the root': 'and, moving from one thing to another, after choosing Theatre Root [Racine], House Root, I have chosen for the picture: Roots of feudal towers' (R. Magritte quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, Vol. III, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes 1949 – 1967, London, 1993, p. 181).

    Preparatory drawings for the 1951 oil appear on two postcards from 11 May that year, addressed to Colinet and fellow Belgian Surrealist Louis Scutenaire. On the former card Magritte expounds: 'My periodic creative crisis is now over, having just been resolved by finding the solution to the picture of the feudal root. I am telling you this because the extraordinary thing is that the solution was already at hand and all I had to do was think of it: 1) from the picture 'The active voice', it was inappropriate to present the tower root in the same setting as those of previous pictures. An experiment made in this wrong direction caused me revulsion. 2) By representing the root on a plain background, pleasure is achieved. 3) An old red chalk drawing already contained the root of this solution to the crisis. 4) A title of genius would be welcome' (R. Magritte quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), ibid., p. 181).

    The sketch he refers back to is his illustration for Paul Eluard's poem Vieillir, reprinted by Editions Luminère in 1946. The turret stands alone as in the present work, its fortress broken by a ruined wall, yet the tower's metamorphosis into a tree does not appear until his 1951 postcards. Magritte's distinctive melding of disparate objects and juxtaposition of unlikely companions can be traced back to his first acknowledged Surrealist work, the 1926 collage Le Jockey perdu in which large chess-like balustrades formed of sheet music appear to sprout branches, whilst the jockey tries in vain to outride the stage on which he is trapped: 'I have found a new potential in things – their ability to become gradually something else, an object merging into an object rather than itself' (R. Magritte quoted in J. Helfenstein & C. Eliott, Magritte, The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938, (exh. cat.), New York, 2013, p. 72).

    Magritte had been inspired by the works of Metaphysical artists such as de Chirico, whose Song of Love purportedly moved the Belgian to tears. This 1914 composition brings together incongruous elements such as a surgeon's glove, an antique bust and a green ball, a grouping which serves to disrupt and disturb the viewer's perception of reality. In La folie Almayer we see the unexpected regeneration of a ruined tower into a living tree, as the cracked turret takes on the appearance of a weathered trunk with roots unfurling below. The delicate tendrils add movement to an otherwise static object, pushed flat against the picture plane and hovering in space. The inanimate is made animate by the hand of the artist: 'the all-powerful hand can do as it pleases with the heaviest stones and a wall' (R. Magritte quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, Vol. II, Oil Paintings and Objects 1931 – 1948, London, 1993, p. 377).

    In his effort to return our child-like sense of wonder in the world, Magritte sought to represent everyday objects in unexpected ways: 'In view of my determination to make the most familiar objects scream aloud, these had to be disposed in a new order and to be charged with a vibrant significance: the cracks we see on the fronts of our houses and the seams upon our faces, to me they looked more eloquent in the sky. Turned wooden table-legs lost the innocent existence we ascribe to them if they suddenly appeared towering up in a forest' (R. Magritte quoted in P. Waldberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, p. 116). In this goal, the artist was at one with his Surrealist cohorts, who for him represented a liberation of style and thought. However, Magritte had experimented with a wide range of techniques, painting variously under the banner of Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism and had even rejected Surrealism for a period after the Second World War. He remained a more representational painter than many of the Surrealists and thought carefully about his compositions rather than allowing an automatic, dream-led process to take over. Magritte's decision to paint objects in a more realistic manner was intended to allow the viewer direct access to his work: 'the true goal of the art of painting is to conceive and execute paintings that are able to give the viewer a pure visual perception of the exterior world, the painter must not contravene the natural workings of the eye, which sees objects according to a universal visual code: for example, the eye perceives the object 'sky' as a blue surface. If the painter wishes to give a pure visual perception of the sky, he must employ a blue surface' (R. Magritte quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: The True Art of Painting, London, 1979, p. 127).

    If Magritte's painting style allows the viewer to read the objects readily, his titles paradoxically serve to obscure. In the present work we can easily discern the metamorphosis of a 'feudal tower' into a tree, but the title appears to stand alone. Magritte asked his friends Colinet, Scutenaire and the founder of Belgian Surrealism, Paul Nougé, to come up with a title for this subject. The latter men both claim it was they who suggested the title of Joseph Conrad's first novel, a tale of pirates and smugglers set in the jungle of Borneo. Magritte had a passionate love of literature and surrounded himself with writers and poets. As a young man he had even tried his hand at writing detective novels under the pseudonym 'Renghis', a combination of his forenames René and Ghislain. Another novel also inspired the title of a painting that year: commissioned by Magritte's friend, New York lawyer Harry Torcyzyner, in order to cover a poorly appointed window in his apartment, Castle of the Pyrenees shows a fortified castle on a rock floating above the sea, and refers to a Gothic romance by Ann Radcliffe.

    Louis Scutenaire and his wife would regularly visit Magritte and his wife Georgette on Sundays, where they would be invited to give names to his recent paintings; up to 170 compositions are thought to bear the titles the Scutenaires suggested. Magritte was seemingly searching for ways in which to obstruct an easy reading of his work, saying of his titles that they 'are not explanations. The titles are chosen in such a way as to prevent my pictures being put into some familiar context suggested by the automatic flow of thought in order to avoid uneasiness. The titles are meant as an extra protection to counter any attempt to reduce poetry to a pointless game' (R. Magritte quoted in D. Sylvester, (ed.), René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, Vol. V, Supplément, London, 1997, p. 20).

    Just as Magritte asked for a 'title of genius' in his 1951 postcard to Colinet, so he described a new background in which 'pleasure is achieved'. In the present work we see a warm, pinky-red background misted finely across the paper, relating closely to the setting of Magritte's La voix active of 1951. Painted just before the oil version of La folie Almayer that year, the artist saw his new colour field setting as an exciting new development, telling Colinet that there was 'no longer any question of using the settings found in his earlier works' (R. Magritte quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, (exh. cat.), London, 1992, n. p.). Turning his back on the more narrative settings of his earlier work, the plain background now heightens the viewer's sense of confusion, as recognisable objects are isolated in space, untethered to the ground and floating free of logical association. Although Magritte continued isolating objects against two-dimensional colour fields over the next few months, it was a relatively short-lived experiment. Each version of La folie Almayer, however, shows the same 'plain background' that Magritte deemed integral to this particular composition.

    The present work was commissioned by Barnet Hodes in July 1959 and was one of eight gouaches painted by Magritte for him that year alone. A successful Chicago lawyer, Hodes had a particular interest in Surrealism and was introduced to several artists from the movement by his client, the collector William Copley. Hodes had two artistic ambitions: the first to own one work by each of the artists who had exhibited in the first Surrealist show at the Galerie Pierre of 1925; the second to own a gouache version of each of Magritte's most iconic paintings. He first visited the artist's studio in 1956 and left having purchased three gouaches that very day. Hodes created what became known as the 'Magritte wall' in his apartment and the collection he amassed along with wife Eleanor continued to grow. At first the lawyer wanted Magritte to faithfully replicate his works in miniature, but the artist quickly grew frustrated: 'I shall have to rethink these works, which already date back quite a few years, so that the work I produce doesn't become a simple mechanical copy. I am not thinking of 'doing better', but of doing something 'just as good'' (R. Magritte quoted in S. Whitfield, ibid., n. p.).

    Smaller than the original oil painting and delicately painted, each brushstroke beautifully distinct, the present variation was requested by Hodes, but the additional versions were not: Magritte 'had always found the idea of recreating his own images a desirable one' (S. Whitfield, ibid., n. p.). La folie Almayer allowed the artist to explore an experimental new picture setting whilst continuing to provoke and unsettle the viewer through mysterious metamorphoses and unexpected juxtapositions, which 'enabled him to achieve his goal of engendering a disturbing poetic climate, plunging us into disorder and thereby bringing us closer to the mystery, the source of all knowledge' (G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, (eds.), René Magritte 1898-1967, (exh. cat.), Brussels, 1998, p. 18).
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