LONDON, ENGLAND - Sotheby’s sale of Surrealist Art on the evening of Monday, February 5, 2007 will include 21 works that are together estimated to realise more than £9 million, making this one of the biggest such sales ever staged. All the masters in the field are represented, among them René Magritte, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Paul Delvaux, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, André Masson and Matta.
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), Les Courtisanes or Le Jardin Des Courtisanes or La Terrasse. Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000. SOTHEBY'S LONDON - FEBRUARY 5, 2007. - SURREALIST ART. © Sotheby's.
At the heart of the sale is a group of five works from a private European collection which together offer a stunning view of the principal Belgian masters of Surrealism: Paul Delvaux and René Magritte.
Painted in 1941, Paul Delvaux’s Les Courtisanes (est: £1,000,000-1,500,000) is one of the artist’s finest compositions, combining the motif of mysterious female nudes with a classically-inspired setting. The backdrop to the scene – an azure sea and vast expanse of sky – evokes a Mediterranean idyll, very different from the urban setting in which Delvaux’s nudes are usually seen. Although Delvaux’s compositions often defy interpretation, the female nudes, semi-nudes and statues in this work are no doubt the courtesans of the title. As paramours of the members of the Royal courts, courtesans carried with them particular associations - of eroticism and a courtly bygone age – that held an enormous appeal for Delvaux (1897-1994). The themes of time, the blurring of past and present, and the subject of women whose past and future are unclear – these are all recurring preoccupations in the artist’s work. The style and composition of the painting also reflect Delvaux’s interest in the work of earlier painters: the lines of the floor tiles diminishing into the distance echo the perspectival devices used by the masters of the Renaissance; the elongated forms of the nudes are reminiscent of mannerist style; and the placing, the poses and the monumentality of the nudes are a direct echo of Cézanne’s important work, Cinq baigneuses sous des arbres (sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1997).
The other four works from the same collection are all by Magritte (1898-1967). One is a powerful oil, Les Fanatiques of 1955 (est: £400,000-600,000), in which the flames of a raging fire are juxtaposed with a bird of prey and stone circle – hinting at alchemy and the phoenix rising from its ashes. The three further works are important gouaches: La Leçon de Musique of 1965 (est: £175,000-225,000), La Promesse of 1950 (est: £250,000-350,000), and Le Prêtre marié of around 1966 (£350,000-450,000). This last is a witty and captivating example of a central theme of Magritte’s art, that of unexpectedly juxtaposed objects. With the extraordinary economy and clarity that characterises his later work, Magritte generates an image of mystery and ambiguity, playing upon the erotic associations of the apple as a symbol of temptation, and the tantalising appeal of a disguised object of desire.
Magritte is further represented in the sale by a hallmark image from a private American collection. Estimated at £2,500,000-3,500,000, L’Okapi explores the single most iconic motif of René Magritte’s work: the bowler-hatted man. The figure first appeared in his painting in 1926 and featured most famously in Golconde of 1953. Sometimes depicted from the back, as in this work, sometimes from the front, his face obscured by an object, the man always remains impersonal, an individual transformed into a universal figure. In L’Okapi, the scene also shows a white flower that appears to be both devouring and protecting the man. While objects such as a loaf of bread, an apple or a bell often appear in Magritte’s paintings and gouaches, usually obscuring the face of the man, this flower is unique within the artist’s work. Having remained in the same collection since 1965, this exceptional painting has not been seen in public since 1964, just six years after it was completed.
From an earlier date, Yves Tanguy’s Les Survenants II of 1942 (est: £1,000,000-1,500,000) is characteristic of the artist’s enigmatic landscapes and abandoned fields populated by organic forms. With these evocative biomorphic shapes, the artist creates an alternative, fantastic world that came to characterise his oeuvre. Painted three years after he moved to America (Tanguy was in fact the first Surrealist artist to move there), Les Survenants II was a gift from Tanguy to his wife, the American painter Kay Sage. After their marriage in 1940, Sage and Tanguy lived in Woodbury, Connecticut – a long-established artists’ colony where they were surrounded by figures such as Alexander Calder, André Masson, Julien Levy and Arshile Gorky. It was in America that Tanguy (1900-1955) adopted the softer, more muted palette that is evident in this work, and that provides a dynamic contrast with the smaller, hard-edged shapes coloured in bright primary tones.
Finally, the sale includes a majestic work by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) - Le Chevalier de la Mort of 1934 (est: £1,000,000-1,500,000). In the mid-1930s, Dalí produced several works based on the theme of the horse. In this work, however, it is the central kneeling figure who dominates. Holding up what looks like a skull, he is a Hamlet-like figure seemingly engaged in mysterious death-related ceremony in a timeless, metaphysical landscape. Death, together with sexual instinct and “a physical notion of the enigma of space” were all things that Dalí identified as the “vital constants” with which every human being can identify at a symbolic level.
The first owner of Le Chevalier de la Mort was the Countess Pecci-Blunt, who was a friend of Dalí’s and collected his works. She was one of the members of the celebrated Zodiac group, which consisted of twelve collectors who supported Dalí at the time. They each agreed to pay him a certain sum in exchange for either one large painting, or a small painting and two drawings. The twelve members of the group, all representing the elite of the Parisan collecting world of the 1930s, drew lots to decide a particular month in a year when each one of them would make a donation.