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  • Embodying the Surrealist poetic of ambiguity, Le Choeur des Sphinges offers a glimpse into René Magritte’s trademark dreamscape which subverts our usual associations of his subjects through their displacement. A superb example from the titular series translating to Chorus of the Sphinx that the artist executed in the spring and summer of 1964, it is one of three known gouache works and one oil painting depicting subsequent stages of the de-contextualization of objects in this enigmatic scene. In one gouache, a single large leaf hovers in the sky; other, more developed ones such as the present lot portray a variety of mysterious shapes replete with foliage. 

     

    Verso of the present lot.
    Verso of the present lot.

    Le Choeur des Sphinges is signed, in English, “To Mrs. Blanche L. Sundheim”—the wife of Chicago business mogul Harry Sundheim, who was president of the toy company Tigrett and likely the first owner of the work. Having visited Magritte in his studio, the couple became major supporters of the artist, collecting his work in depth during the 1960s. Following the Sundheims’ possible acquisition and sale of the work, it was purchased by the current owner, and has remained in the same collection for almost 50 years. 

     

    [left] René Magritte, The Sixteenth of September, 1956. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pro Litteris, Zurich [right] René Magritte, Le Choeur des Sphinges, 1964. Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pro Litteris, Zurich
    [left] René Magritte, The Sixteenth of September, 1956. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pro Litteris, Zurich [right] René Magritte, Le Choeur des Sphinges, 1964. Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pro Litteris, Zurich

    Appearing throughout his oeuvre in masterpieces such as L’Arc de Triomphe, 1962 and The Sixteenth of September, 1956, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, arboreal imagery was one of Magritte’s most enduring tropes. “Pushing up from the earth toward the sun,” Magritte expressed in an undated note, “a tree is an image of a certain happiness. To perceive this image, we must be still, like a tree. When we are in motion, it’s the tree that becomes the spectator. It is witness, equally, in the shape of a chair, a table, a door, in the more or less restless spectacle of our life. The tree, having become a coffin, disappears into the earth. And when it is transformed into flames, it vanishes into the air.”i   

    "In my paintings I showed objects situated where we never find them. It was the realization of a real, if not actually conscious desire existing in most people."
    — René Magritte 

    Sketches in a letter to André Bosmans illustrating possible new variations on Le Choeur des Sphinges, 1964.
    Sketches in a letter to André Bosmans illustrating possible new variations on Le Choeur des Sphinges, 1964.

    Le Choeur des Sphinges evokes some of Magritte’s most iconic motifs: pipes, birds, vases, and other shapes are de-contextualized as they camouflage as clouds in the sky above a forest of trees, each filled with foliage themselves. For example, in the top right hand corner a shape evocative of a pipe is tilted 90 degrees, rendering a ubiquitous object almost unrecognizable through Magritte’s astute manipulation of scale and position. In metamorphosing a pipe into an amorphous blob, the artist articulates the very strangeness of the items we typically utilize every day—directing the viewer’s attention to the mystifying thingliness of things seen outside of the context we’re accustomed to. Indeed, this multiplicity even imbues the work’s title, which refers to a mythical creature that is unique yet composed of disparate bestial elements, such as a human or falcon’s head, lion’s body, and eagle’s wings.

     

    René Magritte, Le temps menaçant (Menacing Times), 1929. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Banque d'Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pro Litteris, Zurich
    René Magritte, Le temps menaçant (Menacing Times), 1929. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Banque d'Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pro Litteris, Zurich

    Magritte’s dreamlike realm unleashes his signature aesthetic of the uncanny sublime, so central to the philosophy of Surrealism and a consistent thread through much of postmodernism. In the introduction to the artist’s landmark 1964 exhibition in the United States, Surrealist ringleader André Breton wrote: “Those objects—the most familiar—are we not overlooking them…when we confine them strictly to their utilitarian role? Yet if we pass on to another frame of reference, it is certain (and psycho-analysis gives ample evidence of this) that most of these same familiar objects contribute to the symbolic elaboration which furnishes the stuff of dreams.”ii Though Magritte was closely associated with the Parisian Surrealist community during the late 1920s and 1930s, his approach diverged from that of his contemporaries—Breton, Ernst, Dalí—in its outright rejection of automatism, instead embracing meticulously rendered, philosophically-engaged imagery. Magritte’s use of semiotics and his conceptual aptitude is most conspicuous in his gouaches, which betray an exquisite craftsmanship and refinement of color.  

    "Those of my pictures that show very familiar objects, an apple, for example, pose questions. We no longer understand when we look at an apple; its mysterious quality has thus been evoked."
     — René Magritte

    i René Magritte, René Magritte: Selected Writings, Minneapolis, 2010, p. 234.
    ii André Breton, “The Breadth of René Magritte,” trans. W.G. Ryan, in Magritte, Little Rock, 1964, n.p.

    • Provenance

      Blanche L. & Harry G. Sundheim, Jr., Chicago
      B.C. Holland, Inc., Chicago
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in August 1971

    • Literature

      David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, IV: Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés 1918-1967, London, 1994, p. 333, app. 184

Property from a Distinguished Midwestern Collection

34

Le Choeur des Sphinges

signed "Magritte" lower left; signed, titled and dedicated "à Madame Blanche L. Sundheim - René Magritte "Le Choeur des Sphinges"" on the reverse
gouache on paper
16 3/8 x 11 5/8 in. (41.6 x 29.5 cm)
Executed in 1964.

The Comité Magritte has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $3,115,500

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

[email protected] 


 

20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020