Rock Star: Israel Museum Bets on Magritte for Its 'Kusama Moment'

‘The Castle of the Pyrenees,’ the great surrealist René Magritte’s famed painting, is the focus of a new grand exhibition at the Israel Museum, bringing back the Belgian genius who visited Israel in 1966

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René Magritte's “The Castle of the Pyrenees,” 1959.
René Magritte's “The Castle of the Pyrenees,” 1959. Credit: Avshalom Avital/Israel Museum
Naama Riba
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Naama Riba

It was a very festive occasion. René Magritte, the Belgian painter who gained world fame as one of the great Surrealist artists, visited the Israel Museum in 1966, one year after it opened. He spent a week touring a divided Jerusalem, the Negev and the Sea of Galilee.

Between one guided tour and another, he found time to view one of his works, “The Handsome Brooder,” which had been donated by an American collector in honor of the museum’s opening. A year after a retrospective exhibition of Magritte’s works at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he had his picture taken beside the painting with his black dog Lulu, who accompanied him on the visit.

Back home, he told a Belgian magazine that it had been “a delightful trip.” He recounted that he ate Saint Peter’s fish by the Sea of Galilee and that “shots were fired at him near Nazareth.” He described the Israel Museum as “very interesting” and noted he had also seen the “acclaimed” Dead Sea Scrolls. A year later, Magritte was dead of pancreatic cancer at 68.

In 1985, when the Israel Museum in Jerusalem celebrated its 20th anniversary, Harry Torczyner, the Jewish-American art collector who was a longtime friend and patron of Magritte (and helped organize the 1966 visit), donated another work by the Belgian artist, “The Castle of the Pyrenees.” It’s a monumental effort, 2 meters by 1.3 meters, which Magritte painted in 1959 at Torczyner’s request to block an unwanted window in his office.

“Today ‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’ will leave my office for Jerusalem,” the collector wrote. “It will embark on another voyage over time and space, because I have chosen for it a route as necessary as the elements that Magritte considered vital to his painting. In Jerusalem ‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’ will join other boulders, walls and enchanted towers.”

René Magritte at Jerusalem's Israel Museum in 1966 with his dog Lulu and his painting "The Handsome Brooder" in the background. Credit: Israel Museum

Magritte and the petty bourgeois fantasy

The work is now at the center of a new exhibition at the Israel Museum called “Drifting with Magritte: Castles in the Air” – curated by Efrat Aharon – that runs through October. The exhibit also includes works by the artist lent by private collectors and the Magritte Museum in Brussels such as “The Secret Agreement” (on loan from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art), “Zeno’s Arrow” and “Clear Ideas,” which came from the collection of the American artist Jeff Koons.

The huge boulder in “The Castle of the Pyrenees” appears in all three of these works. The exhibition also features drawings by Magritte and works by artists influenced by him.

This is the first exhibition of this scope at the Israel Museum since the pandemic began two years ago. “It’s the Israel Museum’s Kusama,” one guest remarked at the opening.

"Clear Ideas," 1958. Magritte began making paintings featuring boulders when he was in his early 50s.Credit: Collection of Jeff Koons

But unlike the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, this isn’t a retrospective but rather a scholarly effort that presents the influences of a masterpiece by one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. Aharon, the curator, says she began working on the exhibition in 2019, but it was delayed by the pandemic.

“Magritte’s importance is his contribution to Surrealism. He created some of the paintings most identified with this movement and with the 20th century in general. He adopted familiar motifs like an apple, clouds, boulders, a hat, a walking stick and wove them into his paintings, creating works that cast doubt on reality and perception,” Aharon says.

“His breakthrough happened in the late ‘50s. His works drew a large audience, including many artists from different currents, and pop artists who were drawn to Magritte’s paintings began collecting his works. Jasper Johns has a large collection of Magritte pieces, and Robert Rauschenberg was also a keen collector.”

A month ago, Magritte’s “The Empire of Light” sold for $80 million at Sotheby’s in London, more than doubling the auction record for a Magritte painting.

Sigal Mordechai, director of the Israeli branch of Sotheby’s, won’t put a price on “The Castle of the Pyrenees” but says it's up there. “I believe that an iconic work of such size and significance, which is on permanent display at the Israel Museum, would certainly reflect the broken record with Magritte,” she says.

"The Anniversary," 1959. Magritte adopted familiar motifs like an apple, clouds, boulders and a hat.Credit: Art Gallery of Ontario

A workhorse

Magritte was born in the Belgian city of Lessines in 1898 and was 14 when his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the Sambre River. At 15 he moved to Charleroi, where he met his future wife, Georgette Berger. He began studying art during World War I and had his first show in 1920 – while working at a factory to make ends meet.

In 1924 he moved to Paris and began painting in the Surrealist style, having been influenced by Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst. Until the middle of World War II he was constantly on the rise. He staged solo exhibitions and also starred in a documentary about his work.

In the mid-’40s he also tried his hand at Impressionism. He was an extremely prolific artist, even considered a workhorse. Aharon says that in his most fertile periods, Magritte could create a hundred oil paintings in a year.

“He had what could be called a commercial orientation,” she says. “He would paint different versions in gouache of a painting that sold well so that people who weren’t that wealthy could also afford his works. He was very diligent. He worked alone in his dining room and didn’t roam the world very much.”

"The domain of Arnheim," 1962. Pop artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are collectors of Magritte's works.Credit: J. Geleyns / RMFAB

“The Castle in the Pyrenees” is unique not only because of its size but because of how it came to be. The events are described in a brief article in the exhibition’s catalog (designed by Magen Halutz and Adam Halutz) and at greater length in a 1991 booklet by curator Yona Fischer, who died a month ago.

Aharon writes that Magritte began featuring boulders when he was in his early 50s. “At the start of his ‘mature period,’ as some call it, he focused on the maturation process of objects, people and landscapes. His works from that time are characterized by drab and monochromatic hues.”

The first stone appears in his 1951 work “The Active Voice” – it takes up most of the painting against a brown and reddish background. In 1958, Magritte made seven stone paintings. In one, “Clear Ideas,” which is on display in the Jerusalem exhibition, the boulder hovers over a seashore, under a late-sunset sky with a single large white cloud floating toward the top.

The threat that the rock seems to contain dominates the scene. It’s the same in all of Magritte’s paintings of stones – the boulder either hovers in the air or is disproportionately large or outside its natural place.

Torczyner began collecting Magritte’s works in the ‘50s, before he met the artist and became a patron to him and other Belgian artists. Their bond became closer in 1958. In June that year, the collector sent Magritte a letter asking him to paint his portrait. Magritte inquired if he wanted gouache or oils, and proposed different sizes and prices accordingly.

Ultimately, Magritte painted Torczyner from a photograph. On the canvas, he placed a hot air balloon above his patron’s head, alluding to Torczyner’s world travels, with the subject wearing a white toga-like garment and gazing toward the horizon.

A room at the current exhibition, which runs through October.Credit: Zohar Shemesh/Israel Museum

“You are dressed like Socrates, your activity is of a dialectic nature,” Magritte wrote him. The collector’s wife and children were thrilled with the portrait, entitled “Harry Torczyner (Justice Has Been Done).” It too is in the Israel Museum exhibition.

Torczyner commissioned the painting in early 1959, but he wasn’t sure Magritte would find time for this foray; he figured the artist had commitments to the Greek dealer Alexander Iolas, with whom Magritte had signed a contract in 1957 that included an annual stipend.

But Magritte wanted to continue his collaboration with Torczyner and offered to paint a portrait of his wife, Marcelle. Magritte falsely dated the painting 1955 so that Iolas wouldn’t know he was moonlighting.

Torczyner, however, wanted a painting that would reflect “the Magritte reality and no other.” So the artist sent him three sketches; one showed a huge stone chair against a blue sky, while the second featured three objects gazing from a stone balcony at a ship sailing in a storm. The third, “The Castle of the Pyrenees,” showed a stone castle perched on a huge boulder floating in the air.

Torczyner wrote to Magritte that he was having a hard time choosing; they were all so good he wanted to cover all three windows of his office. But he especially loved the painting of the boulder and even described an imaginary conversation with that window.

“I stared at the window. It longs to hide behind the rock,” Torczyner wrote. “The holy grail and above it a fortress floats in a full Magritte sky.”

Magnificent and flawless

After a further exchange of letters, Magritte began painting “The Castle of the Pyrenees.” “The work is progressing by leaps and bounds,” he informed Torczyner. “I believe it will be a picture worthy of its name: It will look like a ghost, which I think Ann Radcliffe would have loved, if her book ‘Castle in the Pyrenees’ allows us to know what she loved.”

Magritte was referring to the English author who died in 1823 and was considered a pioneer of the Gothic novel, but in this case he mistook both the title and the author. The real author of “Romance of the Pyrenees” was Catherine Cuthbertson, who died in 1842. The details in Magritte’s painting were inspired by a range of landscapes he had seen.

Aharon says a postcard found in his home was based on a painting by an Armenian artist, and markings on it “were apparently made by Magritte and indicate that he was borrowing parts for his own paintings.” She says the rendition of the castle was evidently influenced by castles Magritte had seen in his travels, “which were both a conscious and unconscious source of inspiration.”

An installation by artist Latifa Echakhch from her Inking series, at the exhibition. Credit: Zohar Shemesh/Israel Museum

The artist and the collector continued their correspondence. In one letter, Magritte asked Torczyner to help him settle a few financial matters with Iolas, and in another he reported that he was behind on producing a mural that could earn him 400,000 francs “immediately.” Toward the summer, Torczyner received the painting he had commissioned.

“Long live Magritte!” he wrote the artist. “‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’ floats gloriously and proudly, it’s magnificent and flawless! The North Sea waves bring freshness and joy.”

The work made Magritte a star. “People told him he had created something extraordinary,” Aharon says. “It’s a great work and it quickly became known around the world and migrated from one exhibition to another. It has appeared in movies and on book jackets such as for Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ and Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities.’”

The new exhibition is one of the first staged by the museum under the leadership of its new director, Denis Weil, who wrote the preface to the catalog. Will this exhibition trigger a turning point for the museum, in a deep slumber for two years?

It will certainly appeal to a wide audience, thanks in part to Michal Aldor’s design and the inclusion of contemporary artworks such as one by Germany’s Katinka Bock composed of a massive granite block resembling Magritte’s rock – with a table on top.

“When you take a close look, you see that where the rock meets the table, the rock has altered its shape to adapt to the table,” Aharon says. “I think this exhibition can definitely attract an audience. It will appeal to fans of Magritte as well as to fans of modern art in general and fans of contemporary art. It will appeal to children as well as adults.”

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