A colored-pencil drawing of an apple captioned, in that familiar cursive script, “This is not an apple.” A gouache army of bowler-hatted men, floating in the sky. An ink sketch of a man smoking a pipe with the face of a man who is smoking a pipe with the face of a man who is smoking a pipe.
No wonder the owners of all of these works believed they had originals by the Belgian Surrealist trickster who specialized in turning the ordinary into anything but.
These were among hundreds of pictures submitted to the Magritte Foundation in the wake of the publication 12 years ago of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, a five-volume opus supervised by British critic David Sylvester. So many potential Magrittes emerged that a new committee convened to vet them.
“What was astonishing was how many were authentic,” says Sarah Whitfield, a British art historian who reviewed the submissions with Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, honorary curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Brussels, and Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Henry Moore Foundation.
The results were so extensive they decided to assemble them in a book. René Magritte: Newly Discovered Works, Catalogue Raisonné VI (published by the Menil Foundation, Mercatourfonds, and the Magritte Foundation, and distributed by Yale University Press), features 130 of the finds, ranging from a painting of Jesus in a crown of thorns Magritte made in 1918, the year he left the Academié Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels, to a haunting not-so-still life of goldfish and a goblet he made shortly before his death in 1967, at age 68.
Unlike the prior volumes of Magritte’s catalogue, which only featured paintings, this one includes works on paper too. Some pictures are new discoveries; others had been recorded as “whereabouts unknown.” Several “were gouaches we knew existed but never could find,” says Whitfield, who edited the book.
The themes and images seen in Magritte’s better-known works are here, along with some that are bizarre, even for him. There are eggs in cages; women in tree trunks and pipes, a horned girl, a woman with a tail, flowers with human bodies, a couple walking a man on a leash, and a giant kitty with a little chair balanced on his back. A floating umbrella topped with a glass of water is titled Hegel’s Holiday. And a giant spoon leans into an iconic tower (Night in Pisa, 1953).
The finds came just in time for Museum of Modern Art curator Anne Umland, who is organizing “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938,” the first major show to focus on the artist’s early Surrealist period. The exhibition, which opens at MoMA next September, travels to the Menil in Houston and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The show will include a newly recovered version of an illustrated set of propositions, “Les mots et les images,” that appeared in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1929. This version (below), dated 1928-29, includes detailed explanations of the varying relationships between words and images that obsessed the artist throughout his career. “Sometimes, the names written in a picture designate precise things, while the images are vague,” Magritte writes in one drawing. “Or, the opposite.”
Umland will also explore other strategies the artist explored during his Surrealist phase, like framing and divided canvases and repetition. “He was putting all systems of representation on trial,” she says. “We’ll look back and see that how radical that moment was.”
Also in the show is an eerie 1927 landscape, The Harvest of the Clouds (below).
“He’s one of those household names of modern art who feels right for a fresh look,” says Umland.
If some of the works look a lot like contemporary painting, that only reflects the artist’s rising influence in recent years. John Baldessari designed a LACMA exhibition exploring Magritte’s artistic legacy in the work of Koons, Gober, and more; Thomas Demand curated a Magritte-themed show at Matthew Marks featuring photos by Luigi Ghirri and films by Tacita Dean and Rodney Graham, among others. Last year the Tate Liverpool spotlighted Magritte’s influence on album art for Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the Jeff Beck group, and Pink Floyd.
The book also includes versions of drawings Magitte made for George Bataille’s erotic novel Madame Edwarda, including a penis with wings and a man looking into a giant vagina. Another erotic find was Ika Loch’s Bordello (below), a 1925 Indian ink drawing recapitulating Magritte’s image for Paul van Ostaijen’s book Het Bordeel van Ika Loch. It shows a woman wearing only a beret kneeling on a ground embedded with eyes. With her right hand, she is pinching her left nipple. With her left hand she is holding a statue of herself doing the same thing–and so on.
For all the works the committee approved, they rejected even more. “There are a lot of fakes of Magritte,” Whitfield says.
“People think he’s an easy painter to copy. He’s really not. He’s not painterly the way a Renoir is painterly, but in a much more discreet fashion. That tends to get overlooked—because the image is so strong.”