A major discovery in the art world has museums and collectors around the world on the hunt for the last remaining piece of a major art puzzle, which involves one of the 20th century’s most iconic and popular artists, and one of his lost masterpieces.
The work of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) is probably well-known to you, even if you are unfamiliar with his name. For example, Magritte’s 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images”, which is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has inspired many Pop Art and indeed pop culture imitations. The canvas features the image of a pipe, with the words “Ceci n’est pas un pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”) in cursive underneath.
Even more famously, Magritte returned several times to the image of a man dressed in a raincoat, suit, and tie, sporting a bowler hat, with his face obscured by an object such as an apple, an umbrella, a bird, and so on. Among these his painting “The Son of Man” from 1964, currently in a private collection, is probably the best known. You may recall that in the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, the painting inspired the final heist sequence in the film, where a group of conspirators dressed like Magritte’s man in the bowler hat all dashed about, confusing the police.
In 1927 Magritte painted and exhibited a large canvas titled “The Enchanted Pose”. It showed a room in which two identical nude women are shown leaning against two column bases. At first glance the picture owes a great deal to the artist’s contemporary, Pablo Picasso, but it also anticipates by almost a decade Picasso’s later, similar series of portraits and compositions featuring his mistress Dora Maar.
While the painting was exhibited and well-received, it disappeared sometime after 1932 when Magritte asked that it be shipped back to him from the art gallery where it was being displayed. Magritte never told anyone what had happened to the picture, and for decades after his death, art historians assumed that the piece had been destroyed.Howver it turns out that the famously thrifty Magritte found another use – or rather, uses – for his painting.
In 2013, conservators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were working on a Magritte in their collection ahead of a major exhibition on the artist, and had the painting x-rayed. They were shocked to discover that underneath Magritte’s 1935 painting “The Portrait” was another painting, which also appeared to be by Magritte. Further research led them to conclude that the canvas was ¼ of the original, large canvas on which “The Enchanted Pose” had been painted. Soon after this discovery, a second ¼ of the lost painting was discovered underneath another Magritte painting from 1935, “The Red Model”, which is now in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
Then last week, the Norwich Castle Museum in England announced the discovery of a third part of Magritte’s “The Enchanted Pose”, hidden beneath his painting “The Human Condition”, also from 1935. That means that there is just ¼ of the original painting left to be found, although we can’t know for certain whether the missing portion of the painting was kept at the same size, or whether Magritte divided it into even smaller pieces. Given both the last known mention of “The Enchanted Pose” and the dates of the works painted on the three sections of it which have been discovered so far, it seems probable and indeed likely that the remaining quarter – if it is a quarter – was probably painted over in 1935 as well.
While Magritte’s decision to destroy his original painting may seem strange, this is not at all unusual in art history. Sometimes artists will destroy or repurpose paintings which they have been unable to sell, for example, and speculation is that this is what occurred here. At other times, artists may decide to reuse old canvases because they cannot afford to buy new ones, or when they are not satisfied with the result of their work. A great number of paintings, when x-rayed, reveal other images or sections of images, painted beneath what we see on the surface.
Unfortunately, as is almost always the case with re-used canvases, Magritte’s “The Enchanted Pose” can never be reassembled outside of old photographs and virtual reality. To do so would involve destroying the later works of art which Magritte painted over the fragments of his original painting, and that could not be justified given the equal or at least comparable importance of the later works he painted. Nevertheless, the hunt for the missing piece or pieces of his lost painting will go on – providing exactly the sort of nerdy detective story which makes the study of art history so endlessly fascinating.