Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Most significant collection of René Magritte letters to appear at auction in over 20 years sells for over $218,000

Last Friday, Sotheby's New York sold the most significant group of Magritte correspondence to appear at auction in more than 20 years for the sum of $218,500 (£147,356), against a pre-sale estimate of $200,000-400,000. The collection was acquired by an American institution.

The cache of over forty highly important letters and postcards from Surrealist master René Magritte to poet Paul Colinet forms an extraordinary record of the artist’s creative process in addition to revealing the literary and artistic influences on his work during the most productive period of his career. Complete with whimsical drawings and sketches, many of which are variations on the artist’s well-known canvases. No other significant group of Magritte letters has appeared on the market since Sotheby’s 1987 sale in London, where the group was offered in an auction of artifacts from the artist’s studio consigned by his widow.

Senior Specialist in Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, Marsha Malinowski, said: “We are extremely pleased with the price that this historically significant group of letters achieved today and we are particularly thrilled that this highly important correspondence was acquired by an American institution, where it will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.”

In 1933, Magritte met the Belgian Surrealist poet Paul Colinet, and the two became close friends rapidly. At the time, Magritte’s personal connections with Surrealism were strained – he had left Paris in disgust and returned home to Brussels – although ironically his artwork remained clearly Surrealist in style. The collection of letters cover a wide range of topics – artistic, literary and surreal – and reveals a remarkable influence Colinet wielded on Magritte and his oeuvre. A peek inside the mind of the Surrealist genius is presented by a letter in which Magritte digressed on the significance of the number 9 and his prose becomes a bit surreal: “vous avez déjà remarqué que le chiffre 18 compose de 1 et de 8, soit 1 + 8 =9 . . . le chiffre 9, multiplié par lui-même donc 81, soit 8 = 1 = 9 . . .”

Sale Update:
The Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles announced it has acquired an important group of letters and postcards from the Belgian surrealist René Magritte.

The group of over forty autograph letters and postcards to the Belgian Surrealist poet Paul Colinet documents Magritte’s life and career from 1934, about the time the two Surrealists met, to 1957, when Colinet passed away. They number about fifty pages, and also include a telegram, a typescript copy of a letter, and eight letters and postcards from Colinet, all contained in a brown morocco binder.

The correspondence was auctioned at Sotheby’s on June 18 by a collector who acquired the group of letters in London in 1987, following the death of Georgette Magritte, the artist’s widow. They have been in the collector’s possession in the United States since then.

The collection of letters adds to the already impressive archival holdings on Magritte at the GRI, to be found in correspondence with Guy Rosey, Noël Arnaud, and Marcel Lecomte, and the papers of E.L.T. Mesens and James Thrall Soby, among others. Together, these holdings offer a valuable glimpse of Magritte within the context of both his personal life and career and Surrealism’s spread into Belgium and beyond. This is especially true because although the famed artist was an unusually voluble correspondent with a large number of artists, writers, collectors, and dealers, his correspondence and papers are dispersed, with significant material in Belgium and at the Menil Collection, and smaller quantities of letters at Yale, the Ransom Center, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Until their acquisition by the GRI, the Colinet letters appeared to be one of the last remaining intact caches of Magritte letters that remained both unpublished and not yet placed with a public institution.

“This addition will be sure to stimulate renewed attention to the Magritte letters at the GRI as a research resource for studies of not only Magritte, but also Surrealism, in which the GRI has particularly strong holdings, and in aesthetics more broadly,” said GRI director Thomas Gaehtgens. “Already, the theorist Thierry de Duve, having become familiar with the letters to Marcel Lecomte during his time here as a Getty Scholar, has written an essay on a most extraordinary illustrated example, in which the artist elaborately presents his understanding of Edouard Manet's famous Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882).”

The GRI has a particularly strong collection of artists’ original letters, many of which have not been published. “Even when correspondence has been transcribed in publications, it’s important to have the originals in order to view their formats, the paper, and adjacencies of text and image,” said GRI chief curator Marcia Reed. “About a quarter of these letters are illustrated with small vignettes by Magritte, and they’re quite legible, reminiscent of his paintings, such as The Treachery of Images (1929), in which he places the image of a pipe with the caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ [‘This is not a pipe.’]”

René Magritte
The artist who, arguably more than any other, embodies visual Surrealism in the popular imagination was born René-François Ghislain Magritte on Nov. 21, 1898, in Lessines, Belgium. In the fall of 1916, he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, but also began working as a commercial artist, an endeavor that intermittently afforded him financial stability for the next few decades. By 1920, Magritte had made contact with Marinetti and the Futurists, and become fully involved in the Belgian avant-garde.

In 1922, he married Georgette Berger, and the following year he saw a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s painting Le chant d’amour (1914), which triggered Magritte’s shift away from Cubism, though his first full-blown Surrealist paintings do not appear before 1925.

Together with E. L. T. Mesens, Marcel Lecomte, Paul Nougé, and a few others, Magritte was one of the key members of Belgian Surrealism, which distinguished itself from the Parisian group by its more social, less doctrinaire, character.

Magritte’s first one-person show took place in 1927, and he would go on to countless other solo and group exhibitions. Among the most prominent from his lifetime are perhaps his first show with Alexander Iolas (who became his lifelong dealer) in 1947; “Word vs. Image,” an exhibition of his early Surrealist word paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1954; and retrospectives of his work at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in 1954; and at MoMA, New York, in 1965, organized by James Thrall Soby. More recently, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, which featured illustrated letters from the GRI Special Collections, has encouraged a reconsideration of Magritte's legacy by highlighting his importance to later artists.

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