Museum Unmasks Missing Magritte

NORWICH, ENGLAND.- An extraordinary art world mystery relating to a missing painting by the famous Belgian surrealist artist, René Magritte (1898 – 1967) is inching closer to being solved due to an exciting recent discovery in Norwich.

Dr Giorgia Bottinelli, Curator of Historic Art, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery explains: “We have discovered that the painting La Condition humaine (The human Condition) of 1935 by René Magritte, in the collection of Norfolk Museums Service, provides another piece in an international art world jigsaw puzzle.

“La Condition humaine was painted over a quarter of an earlier painting by Magritte entitled La Pose enchantée (The enchanted Pose), which was first exhibited in 1927 and is only known from an old black and white photograph, shown here.

“The last reference to La Pose enchantée, a large painting of two female nudes, was in 1932, after which it completely disappeared. Even Magritte’s Catalogue Raisonné lists its whereabouts as unknown.

“What happened to the missing painting is now, however, slowly coming to light in a remarkable series of events. It seems that for some reason, Magritte must have decided to cut the painting into quarters, and then painted four completely different paintings over the top. So our painting La Condition humaine has in fact been successfully hiding part of La Pose enchantée for more than 80 years.”

The explanation for the disappearance of La Pose enchantée came to light in 2013 when, to the amazement of the art world, two paintings were discovered to have been part of the missing canvas, one in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the other in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Two, however, still remained lost. That is until now when the third, the lower-right quarter, emerged in Norwich.

This exciting discovery is the result of dedicated detective work by conservator Alice Tavares da Silva, working on behalf of Norfolk Museums Service.

In February 2016 Alice examined Magritte’s La Condition humaine in advance of it being loaned to the forthcoming major Magritte retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

She discovered that the edges of the painting are very atypical for Magritte. They were painted over and around the stretcher with what appeared to be form and color unrelated to the composition painted on the front. Further research led her to a report from conservators at MoMA.

While preparing for another Magritte exhibition in 2013 the MoMA conservation team examined his work entitled The Portrait of 1935. They too found the edges of the canvas were painted over the stretcher, which they found curious. The painting was then x-rayed and the results excitingly revealed an underlying composition, that of a half-length female nude. This was a major clue, which following further investigation and help from conservator Brad Epley, at Houston's Menil Collection, enabled the MoMA team, led by Michael Duffy, to prove conclusively that Magritte had in fact painted The Portrait over the upper-left quarter of the missing painting La Pose enchantée.

This discovery led to an additional painting by Magritte, The Red Model, in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, being closely scrutinized by art conservators. The Red Model was also painted in 1935 and was close in size to The Portrait. Lo and behold that too was discovered to have another painting hidden under the pigment. This turned out to be the lower-left quarter of La Pose enchantée.

On reading the report Alice said: “I realized there were striking similarities between the Norwich painting and these two other works by Magritte, notably size and the date of execution. More so, the paint visible on the edges seemed to relate very closely to the composition of La Pose enchantée.

“I was then able to superimpose an image of an exposed edge with the black and white illustration of La Pose enchantée and conclude that the Norwich painting was painted over the lower right quarter of the original composition. It was a hugely exciting discovery so I immediately arranged to take the painting to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, at the University of Cambridge to be x-rayed and analysed*. The results confirmed my initial observations that La Condition humaine was indeed the lower right-hand quarter of the missing painting.

"What is additionally thrilling is the fact that, now that we have found the third missing quarter, we have the necessary amount of information to add to MoMA's existing colour reconstruction and are able to get a more complete idea of what La Pose enchantée would have originally looked like in colour. Until recently we have only known of its existence from a black and white photograph."

Dr Giorgia Bottinelli, Curator of Historic Art, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, concluded: “The mystery of the whereabouts of Magritte’s La Pose enchantée has almost been solved. Remarkably, one quarter is in Norwich, one in New York and one in Stockholm. All we need to discover now is where the fourth and final, upper-right hand quarter is. Then this exciting art world jigsaw puzzle will be complete”.