René Magritte

The Annunciation


Not on display

René Magritte 1898–1967
Original title
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1137 × 1459 mm
frame: 1270 × 1586 × 70 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986

Display caption

The objects in this painting appear to be a metal sheet with bells, a paper cut-out and two balusters (Magritte referred to similar objects in his paintings as bilboquets, a French stick and ball game). Their enlargement and conjunction with the landscape creates a feeling of incongruity recalling the experience of dreams. In titling this work The Annunciation, Magritte may have been alluding ironically to the hostility towards Catholicism shown by the French surrealists. But the title also suggests that something is about to happen, an expectation that is central to the eerie quality of this strange landscape.

Gallery label, October 2016

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Catalogue entry

T04367 The Annunciation 1930 L'Annonciation

Oil on canvas 1137 × 1459 (44 3/4 × 57 7/16)
Inscribed ‘Magritte’ t.l.
Purchased from Thomas Gibson Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986
Prov: Bt from the artist by E.L.T. Mesens, Brussels, June or July 1930; acquired by Alex Salkin, Brussels by Dec. 1931; reacquired by E.L.T. Mesens, Brussels by 1936 and until 1971; private collection by inheritance, Brussels from 1971; Thomas Gibson Fine Art by Sept. 1984
Exh: L'Art vivant, Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels, Jan. 1931 (117); Guiette, Magritte, Picard, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, Dec. 1931–Jan. 1932 (41); The International Surrealist Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, June–July 1936 (172); Exposition internationale du surréalisme, Galerie des beaux-arts, Paris, Jan.–Feb. 1938 (107); Cinquième festival belge d'été: Expositions René Magritte - Paul Delvaux, Casino Communal, Knokke, Aug. 1952 (9); René Magritte, Lefevre Gallery, March 1953 (8); René Magritte, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, May–June 1954 (33, repr. p.26); XXVII Biennale di Venezia, Venice, June–Oct. 1954 (Belgian pavilion, 36, dated 1929); De Vier hoofdpunten van het surrealisme, Zaal C.A.W., Antwerp, April 1956 (25); IV Bienal, Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, Sept.–Oct. 1957 (Belgian pavilion, 32, dated 1929); Depuis Ensor, Palais des beaux arts, Brussels, April–Sept. 1958 (77, repr. p.122); Magritte, Musée d'Ixelles, Brussels, April–May 1959 (21, repr. pl.11); Ausstellung hundert Jahre belgischer Kunst, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Nov.–Dec. 1959 (55, repr. pl.32, dated 1929); Hainaut cinq, Musée des beaux-arts, Mons, March 1964 (6); Werkelijkheid en verheelding: Belgische surrealisten, Gemeentemuseum, Arnhem, July–Sept. 1964 (30, dated 1929); René Magritte, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Dec. 1965–Feb. 1966 (13, dated 1929, repr. p.30); René Magritte, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, April–May 1966, Art Institute, Chicago, May–July 1966, Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, Aug.–Sept. 1966, University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, Oct.–Nov. 1966 (13); Magritte: Cent cinquante oeuvres; première vue mondiale de ses sculptures, Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, Jan.–Feb. 1968 (45); Magritte, Arts Council, Tate Gallery, Feb.–March 1969, extended to 2 April (33, col. p.43 and on front cover); René Magritte, Kestner-Gesellshaft, Hanover, May–June 1969, Kunsthaus, Zürich, June–July 1969 (97, repr. p.83); L'Art en Europe autour de 1925, Musée de l'Ancienne Douane, Strasbourg, May–Sept. 1970 (120, col. pl.VII, dated 1929); Surréalisme, Galerie des beaux-arts, Bordeaux, May–Sept. 1971 (123); Rétrospective Magritte, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, Oct.–Dec. 1978 (100, repr. in col.); Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool (no number, repr. p.27 in col.); Magritte, Hayward Gallery, May–Aug. 1992, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Sept.–Nov. 1992, Menil Collection, Houston, Dec. 1992–Feb. 1993, Art Institute of Chicago, March–May 1993 (55, repr. in col.)
Lit: David Sylvester, Magritte, exh. cat., Arts Council, Tate Gallery 1969, p.9, repr. in col. p.43 and front cover; Robert Lebel, Magritte, Paris 1969, p.13, repr. col. pl.3, dated 1929–30; Suzi Gablik, Magritte, 1970, p.26, repr. fig.31, dated 1929; Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, 1970, p.122, fig.121, dated 1929–30; David Sylvester, ‘Portraits de Magritte’, trans. Annie Perez, in Rétrospective Magritte, exh. cat., Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels 1978, pp.66, 75, repr. no.100 (col.); Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1986–7, 1987, p.15 repr.; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.66, repr. in col.; Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, p.27, repr. in col.; Sarah Whitfield, ‘Magritte and his Audience’ in Magritte, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery 1992, p.19, and notes for cat. nos.53, 55; David Sylvester (ed.), David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné I: Oil Paintings 1916–30, 1992, pp.352–3, repr. p.352; David Sylvester, Magritte, 1992, pp.72, 94, 126–7, 185–9, 199, 204, repr. p.127 and p.186 in col. Also repr: Message: Belgian Review, Dec. 1942, p.44; Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Paintings, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, 1960, p.184, dated 1929; Patrick Waldberg, René Magritte, trans. Austryn Wainhouse, Brussels 1965, p.99 in col., dated 1929; Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. Richard Miller, New York 1977, fig.482 in col.; Jacques Dopagne, Magritte, 1979, col. pl.3, dated 1929; Roland Penrose, Harry Torczyner, Magritte: The True Art of Painting, trans. Richard Miller, 1979, p.123; Roland Penrose, Scrap Book 1900–1981, 1981, p.63

‘The Annunciation’ brings together many of the themes, both iconographic and philosophical, that engaged Magritte during his stay in Paris from 1927 to 1930, a period in which he was closely associated with the French Surrealists. The painting shows an unlikely combination of objects. Two large bilboquets (Magritte's term for the objects in his works, which, though imaginary, recall wooden balustrades or chess-pieces) stand next to an oddly shaped piece of paper with a decorative cut-out pattern. Behind them looms a grey metal ‘curtain’, hung with sleigh bells. Despite its incongruity, this collection of objects seems disconcertingly ‘at home’ in the rock-strewn landscape beneath the grey clouds in the blue sky. The size of the painting (it is one of the largest the artist ever executed), together with its traditional composition and subtle allusions to Old Master painting, are signs of the ambitiousness of the work.

T04367 has sometimes been said to have been painted in 1929, but documentary evidence shows that it was not completed until the first quarter of 1930. In a letter addressed to a close friend, the Belgian poet Paul Nougé, and dated by internal evidence to the first half of February, Magritte described a number of paintings he was working on, or had just completed, and included detailed thumbnail sketches of them (see Marcel Mariën, ed., ‘Lettres surréalistes (1924–40)’, Le Fait accompli, Brussels, nos.81–95, May–Aug. 1973, pp.96–7). Writing, ‘Here are also sketches of two large pictures’ (‘Voici aussi les croquis de deux grands tableaux’), a phrase which indicates that the drawings related to actual, rather than merely planned, works, Magritte sketched an early version of T04367 and the painting later titled ‘On the Threshold of Freedom’ (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, repr. Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, no.326).

The central area of the first sketch depicts an upright metal sheet with sleigh or horse bells, a large piece of paper with cut-out patterns, and two balustrades, and is identical in all details to the image of the final painting. However, to the left of the metal sheet, where in the painting there is a large tree, the drawing shows a middle-aged man, possibly bearded, wearing a suit and reading a newspaper, and seated on a hard-backed chair. There are no bushes, rocks or landscape in the drawing: ‘luminous background’ (‘fond lumineux’) is Magritte's label for the space surrounding the central motif. Instead, around the sides and top of the drawing there is a jagged line and shading, labelled by Magritte ‘grotto’ (‘grotte’). This suggests that the painting, as sketched by Magritte in his letter to Nougé, originally represented a view of the seated man and objects seen from within a cave. These details of this early stage of the painting's genesis have been confirmed by X-radiographs taken by the Tate Gallery for the purposes of the Catalogue raisonné (repr. Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, p.353). Indeed, the line where the edge of the cave once was can be seen when the painting is viewed in raking light.

Another letter proves that the painting reached its final form by the early summer at the very latest. Writing on 5 June 1930, E.L.T. Mesens, a Surrealist who had dealt in Magritte's works since 1927, offered to assist the artist financially by buying from him a group of works. Magritte willingly agreed to this and in his reply, dated in Mesens's hand 10 June, he listed a group of available recent works which he identified by their size (the basis on which paintings were often valued in this period) and by a brief description of their imagery (Joë Bousquet, André Breton, Hermann Closson et al., Lettres mêlées (1920–1966), Brussels 1979, p.29). Among these was a canvas described as ‘landscape with apparition of bilboquets, a paper cut-out, bells in the background’ (‘paysage avec apparition de bilboquets, papier découpé, grelots dans le fond’), which was undoubtedly T04367. The omission of any mention of either a seated figure or a grotto suggests that Magritte had already completed the revision of the painting by this point.

It seems likely, however, that the repainting had been completed some time before this, perhaps in the period between mid-February and the end of March, as Magritte's financial difficulties would perhaps have denied him the necessary time and energy in the following months. With the collapse of the New York stock market in late 1929 and the onset of the Depression, it had become virtually impossible to sell modern paintings at any price in Paris. Magritte, who had no alternative income, was particularly hard hit by the slump in the art market. At the same time, his close friend and dealer, Camille Goemans, closed his gallery in April 1930 owing to a combination of financial and personal reasons, and returned to his native Belgium to look for work. Magritte had been promised a one-man show at the Galerie Goemans, and Sylvester and Whitfield (1992, p.347) suggest that, just as Magritte had produced two large paintings for his one-man show in 1928, he may have intended his two large paintings of early 1930, ‘The Annunciation’ and ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’, to be the major works of this projected show. In the 1992 Hayward Gallery catalogue Whitfield (cat. no.53) suggests that the two works ‘might even be a pair, for they are virtually the same size and both convey the mixture of expectation and suspense that heralds a promised and momentous event’. This disappointment, however, was as nothing compared to the seriousness of the loss of his monthly stipend from Goemans which he had been receiving since the summer of the previous year. Sylvester and Whitfield (1992, p.117) record that Magritte's wife Georgette recalled that they became dependent on gifts of money and food parcels from her father, as well as on the proceeds of the sale of books from his library. While Magritte's letter to Nougé suggests that in January and February he was very much engaged in painting, it is clear that by March, or most certainly April, he was preoccupied with the task of finding a livelihood. As is indicated in a further letter to Nougé, written probably either in April or May, he tried to find work as a commercial artist, the means by which he had supported himself in the early 1920s:

My position is not very easy for the moment. Since my return I have been looking for work, without success. I intend to return to Brussels for good if by the end of this month the approaches I have made don't come to anything. I shall have to, since there is no one I can rely on to help me here.

But in the meantime, do you think I might stand a chance if I applied for a job as a commercial artist, salaried if possible, in a big store like the Bon Marché or the Innovation? I believe you know people who might be able to advise you about this?

(quoted in Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, p.118)

It seems that Magritte was offered a job in a commercial art studio but turned it down. According to Georgette Magritte, this decision was due in large part to her desire to return to Brussels as much as to their financial problems, and they finally left Paris in July 1930.

Mesens took possession of T04367, as well as the ten other paintings offered him in Magritte's letter of the first part of June, at the end of the month or in the first few days of July. None of the paintings was titled at this point, and it is possible to believe that Magritte's financial difficulties had prevented him from thinking about his work. Magritte typically relied on friends to suggest and discuss titles and, therefore, the testimony of several of Magritte's associates that it was Belgian Surrealist Paul Nougé who subsequently suggested titles for most of the eleven works bought by Mesens is unsurprising (Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, p.119). Although he himself did not invent many, Magritte certainly approved the titles given to his works, which he felt should ‘prevent people from putting my paintings in a reassuring pigeon-hole ... in order to devalue their meaning’. Titles, he explained in an essay of 1930, ‘ought to be an additional safeguard, discouraging attempts to reduce true poetry to some inconsequential game’ (‘La Ligne de vie I’, in René Magritte, Ecrits complets, Paris 1979, p.110).

‘Annunciation’, the title given to T04367 by the time of its first public showing in March 1931, seems unrelated to the subject matter of the painting. However, its religious connotations seem strangely appropriate to the work's serious mood: there is no Mary, or Archangel, yet the strange stillness of the imagery suggests that something momentous either has just happened or is about to, and that what we see is, in fact, some sort of vision (in his letter to Mesens, Magritte described the central grouping of objects as an ‘apparition’). Sylvester (1992, p.187) writes, ‘There are numerous instances of the sublime in Magritte's art, but nothing else as numinous as this ... “The Annunciation” impresses through its majesty, its solemnity, its luminosity, its silence’.

Magritte himself was not a believer, and would have thought of the mystery implied in the idea of ‘annunciation’ in a purely secular sense. An uncritical use of a term so central to Catholicism, however, would have been anathema to the Surrealist group, and it is likely that the title was intended to be not only ironic but also provocative. Magritte had quarrelled with the leader of the French Surrealists, André Breton, on a matter relating to religion in December 1929, and the rift between the two men was to last until 1933. At a gathering at his home, Breton, who, like all the Surrealist writers, was an arch-atheist and anti-cleric, noticed that Georgette was wearing a cross, and asked her to take off ‘that object’. Georgette habitually wore the cross, which had belonged to her grandmother, and preferred to leave with her husband rather than remove it. Magritte was deeply angered and upset by this seemingly rather trivial incident, and rejected attempts by friends to effect a reconciliation. Yet the fault was not all on one side: many present at the incident felt that Magritte's hostile response was not entirely justified, particularly as it seems that he had long attempted to provoke Breton on the subject of religion. Patrick Waldberg writes, ‘At the meetings Magritte had for some time been making a custom of harrying Breton with “embarrassing” questions bearing upon religion - “Tell me, Breton, what do you think of Jesus Christ? What is the view you take of the Virgin Mother? Breton, have you pondered the Catholic mystery?”’ (Waldberg 1965, p.201).

Magritte's jibes may have been intended simply to annoy Breton, or they may also have had a serious point. Although they always emphatically denied this, the Surrealists’ cult of the ‘marvellous’ and their belief in an immanent surreality had much in common with a mystical interpretation of Catholicism which was much in vogue in the period and was championed by such prominent literary figures as the poet Paul Claudel. The crucial point of difference, of course, was that the Surrealists did not believe that behind the phenomena of the ‘marvellous’ they so eagerly sought in art and life lay a Christian God or any organising, purposeful force. Nonetheless, the language and ideas they used to describe a surreality that lay beyond the known world, and escaped logic and reason, echoed those of conventional mysticism; and it is possible that in selecting this title Nougé and Magritte intended to raise the uncomfortable parallels between Surrealism and Catholicism as an issue of debate within the group with his jibes. It was perhaps no coincidence that the painting which in size was the pair to T049367 was called ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’. This title can be seen as a secular, and possibly political, version of the theme of expectancy implicit in ‘The Annunciation’, although what was intended by these titles and their pairing remains unclear.

A further aspect of the title, which again seems intentional, albeit ambiguous, is its association with religious painting, in particular the great Annunciation scenes of Renaissance art. Certain aspects of the work's style and composition can be seen as supporting this allusion to Old Master painting. The frontal composition, as well as the work's pale light and grey tonality, suggest a subtle reference to the painting style of the Quattrocento; and in his 1992 monograph (p.188) David Sylvester compares the grey, massy boulders in T04367 with the rocky landscapes of some religious paintings of this period, reproducing for comparison ‘St John in the Desert’ c.1445, by Domenico Veneziano. Sylvester and Whitfield (1992, p.264) also suggest that Magritte's use of disembodied hands in ‘The Elusive Woman’, 1928, was inspired by a fresco by Fra Angelico of the 1440s; and if this were so, then it could be seen as a precedent for the subtle allusions to Renaissance art in T04367.

A much more important source for the composition of this painting, however, was ‘The Island of the Dead’, by the nineteenth-century Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. Böcklin executed five works on the same theme in the period 1880 to 1886, each showing a shrouded figure in a boat drawing near to an island with high cliffs and tall, centrally positioned, fir trees, which rise up sharply from the water's edge. The comparison between T04367 and ‘The Island of the Dead’ rests upon the extraordinary way in which, just like the sheer faces of the cliffs of Böcklin's island, the metal curtain and balustrades in ‘The Annunciation’ rise vertically up from a low horizon level, blocking any view of the distance. Böcklin had been a major influence upon Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst, and it seems that Magritte, too, was attracted by Böcklin's brooding images, based on classical themes. Sylvester and Whitfield (1992, p.353, with a reproduction of the Böcklin painting) suggest that T04367 ‘is perhaps the most complex homage Magritte ever produced to an image which seems to have inspired a number of his paintings of all periods’, and cite a painting of 1927, ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ (Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique, Brussels) as an example.

If, as seems likely, Magritte intended to echo Böcklin's ‘The Island of the Dead’, the thought occurred to him only when he decided to rework T04367. As the sketch in the letter to Nougé shows, Magritte initially intended the painting to represent a scene viewed from within a cave. (It is just conceivable that, instead, the objects in the landscape might have been inside the cave, but the fact that Magritte labelled the dark area surrounding the central scene ‘grotto’ suggests that, originally, it was the viewer of the painting, rather than the landscape, that was inside the cave.)

A possible motive for the change in the image may have been the technical difficulty of relating convincingly the cave walls in the foreground to the scene beyond. By eliminating the cave Magritte was able to focus the interest of the image in the near middle distance, a compositional structure which served to strengthen the conventionality of the image, and was typical of his work as a whole. The seated man reading a newspaper in the early version of the painting was an icon of middle-class normalcy used by Magritte in many paintings, including the Tate Gallery's ‘Man Reading a Newspaper’, 1928 (T00680). By removing this figure, with its connotations of ordinary domestic life, Magritte simplified the subject of the painting to create a more homogeneous, though still surprising, grouping of elements in the centre of the picture.

Magritte may well have intended his first conception of T04367 to allude to the famous tale of the cave-dwellers in Plato's Republic. In this Plato described a group of cave-dwellers who never looked outside their cave and mistakenly believed that the shadows they saw on the cave walls were the sum total of reality, although, in fact, they were cast by unseen people and objects beyond the cave. Magritte was to become well-read in philosophy only later in his life, but he had shown an interest in philosophical problems since his student days, and it is quite probable that he would have known this famous allegory concerning the inadequacy of appearances as a guide to reality. In depicting a view seen from inside a cave looking out, Magritte had raised the possibility that the viewer of the painting was a modern cave-dweller. However, whereas the story was used by Plato to illustrate his belief that behind the world of fleeting appearances there lay an unseen realm of stable, ideal forms, the scene beyond the cave in Magritte's painting lacked a rational explanation: it was akin to an hallucination, or what Magritte described as an ‘apparition’.

In this context it is perhaps relevant to note that the Surrealists' approach to art was self-consciously Platonist. André Breton, for example, alluded to Plato's story of the cave-dwellers when he wrote in 1927 of the unrecognisable biomorphic creatures in Yves Tanguy's imaginary landscapes, ‘Figures of our suspicion, beautiful, pitiful shadows prowling round our cave, we know that you are shadows’ (André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, 1972, p.46). (The implication here was that modern man, living in an age in which science had demonstrated that matter was not as static or solid as conventionally thought, had had to accept that appearances were illusory.) Alluding to a saying as popular in French as in English, Breton wrote in 1929 about the works of Salvador Dalí, ‘If only ... we were rid of those famous trees. The secret of Surrealism rests in the fact that we believe that something is hidden behind them’ (‘Premier exposition Dalí’, in André Breton, Point du jour, Paris 1970, p.69).

The philosophical and emotional aspects of the question of what lies behind a painted image was central to much of Magritte's work. In an essay which took the form of a series of illustrated propositions, Magritte noted in 1929, ‘An object leads one to believe that there are others behind it’ (‘Les Mots et les images’ in La Révolution surréaliste, no.12, Paris 1929, p.32). In an interview in 1965 he said, ‘Everything we see hides something else; we always want to see what is hidden by the thing we see. It is interesting to know what is hidden and what the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of battle, I would say, between the hidden visible and the apparent visible’ (quoted in Sylvester 1978, p.47). This ‘battle’ is central to the surreal quality of T04367, as much of the emotive force of the imagery derives from the suspicion that something unknown lies behind the central group of objects.

This suspicion is fostered by the work's composition, which prevents a view of the far distance, and, more generally, by Magritte's realist style of painting. The smooth paint surfaces and consistent handling of space, light and atmosphere, add to the easy legibility of the scene, and are calculated to induce in the viewer an attitude of acceptance of the image as a whole. The bilboquets, paper cut-out and metal sheet with bells are painted illusionistically, and, despite their enormously exaggerated size, they are as convincingly portrayed as the landscape or sky. However, the improbability of these objects being found in this setting throws doubt onto the ‘reality’ of the otherwise unexceptional landscape elements of the painting.

The combination of apparently unrelated objects in T04307 can be seen as a development of Magritte's earlier collage works. David Sylvester has described this painting as a particularly elaborate ‘quasi-collage’, noting that this impression is reinforced by the presence of the paper with cut-out patterns (Sylvester 1978, p.66). Many of Magritte's earliest Surrealist works were papiers collés, and a collage technique of extraordinary juxtapositions of otherwise everyday objects remained central to his later works. In this he had been influenced greatly by de Chirico's enigmatic paintings with their strange combinations of objects, as well as by Max Ernst's collages of the early 1920s (see Magritte, Ecrits complets, Paris 1979, p.104).

Magritte treated the imagery of his paintings as standard components to be assembled and reassembled in different combinations. Nearly all the elements of T04367 can be found in other paintings, both of the period and later. The previously cited ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’, 1930, for example, includes a metal sheet and bells, a paper cut-out, as well as similar trees, bushes and sky. ‘The Depths of the Earth’, 1930 (repr. Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, no.328) is a four-part work featuring similar trees and bushes. ‘Pink Bells, Tattered Skies’, (repr. ibid., no.331) brings together, as its title suggests, bells and sky. Two years before painting T04367 Magritte had combined in ‘The Empty Mask’, 1928 (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, repr. ibid., no.285,) a paper cut-out, bells on a curving metal background, trees and sky.

This way of working was a logical extension of his interest in stereotyped images and standard forms, expressed in earlier paintings. Much influenced by Léger and Purism, he wrote in praise of modern standardisation in a text, dated 1922, produced in collaboration with the artist Victor Servranckx: ‘Man-made objects ought to be perfect, it is the only life that can be given to them ...For perfection Standardisation is necessary; the latest design for a house alone is proof of this. Monotony is not to be feared’ (‘L'Art pur: Défense de l'esthétique’ in René Magritte, Ecrits complets, Paris 1979, p.16).

Magritte's paintings of this period depicted objects in terms of simplified outlines and essential details. However, when he realised that reality itself was, as he later wrote, equivocal, inconsistent and as abstract as any painting, he adopted c.1925–6 an illusionistic style in order to make the concept of reality itself the subject of his works (see Magritte, ‘La Ligne de vie I’, Ecrits complets, Paris 1979, p.107). He began to work with an imagery of mass-produced objects and everday settings, and used a flat style of painting, reminiscent of commercial illustration (from time to time he supported himself by working as a commercial illustrator).

Magritte had been influenced by the French and Belgian Dada movements in the early 1920s, and the inexpressive manner of painting found in T04367 reflected his consistently iconoclastic, anti-art aesthetic. In an essay of 1938 (ibid., p.108) he explained:

The lack of plastic qualities, much remarked upon by critics, had been compensated for by an objective representation of objects, which were clearly understood and appreciated by those whose taste had not been spoilt by all the literature surrounding painting. This detached manner of representing objects seemed to me to reveal a universal style, in which individual obsessions and petty preferences no longer counted. I would use light blue, for example, where sky had to be represented, contrary to bourgeois artists who used the depiction of sky as an opportunity to put a particular blue next to a particular grey they liked. For my part, I think that these small preferences do not have anything to do with my work, and find these very serious artists ridiculous.

At the centre of T04367 are two objects, familiar from many Magritte paintings of the mid and late 1920s, known as bilboquets. As Sylvester and Whitfield (1992, p.161) explain, the term ‘bilboquet’ normally refers to a child's wooden cup-and-ball toy. However, Magritte used this term to describe the apparently wooden objects in his paintings, although his bilboquets were often closer to other turned wooden objects, such as chessmen, table-legs or stair balusters than to any toy. In the 1978 Brussels exhibition catalogue (p.63), Sylvester suggested that Magritte's use of bilboquets was inspired by ‘The Profanation of the Host’ (Palazzo Ducale, Urbino) by the early Renaissance painter Uccello, which has a curving wooden column dividing two scenes. He also argued that Uccello's ‘A Hunt in the Forest’ (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) was a source for the ‘forest’ of bilboquets in Magritte's ‘The Lost Jockey’, 1926 (repr. Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, no.81).

A distinctive feature of Magritte's bilboquets is their anthropomorphic quality. Like de Chirico and Léger, Magritte was interested in animating the inanimate: in ‘The Difficult Crossing’, 1926 (repr. Sylvester and Whitfield, no.84), for example, the solitary bilboquet has an open eye, while in ‘The Birth of the Idol’, 1926 (repr. ibid., no.89) a wooden arm is attached by a hook to the bilboquet. In T04367 the curving shape of the two bilboquets, as well as their relative sizes, suggest a male and female couple. Although bilboquets were common in Magritte's paintings and papiers collés of 1926–7 (and were again to feature in some later works), they had not occurred since 1928, and this lends support to the idea that Magritte may have intended to resume in T04367 the themes of his works of recent years.

The bells in T04367 were also standardised forms, and should perhaps be seen as related to Magritte's works of the early 1920s. The sphere on top of a cube in ‘Bather’, 1925 (repr. ibid., no.64), for example, can be seen as anticipating the bell motif which first appeared in such pictures as ‘The Silvered Chasm’, 1926 (repr. ibid., no.87). Nothing is known about how Magritte hit upon this particular motif, often combined with a strangely fluid and rippling metal curtain or sheet, but he appears to have relished its disturbing associations. Round, with gaping slits, these bells evoke the human head; metal substitutes for flesh; a dark void replaces the human brain; and, overall, the imagery has bleak and menacing connotations that are far removed from the worlds of childhood and farm animals often associated with such bells. In 1938 he described them as ‘the small iron bells hanging from the necks of our admirable horses’. He added that he wanted the bells in his paintings to ‘grow like poisonous plants on the edges of precipes’ (Ecrits complets, p.120).

The paper cut-out, despite its decorativeness and association with childhood games, also has a subtly menacing quality. Its shape may be thought to suggest a cat, while the pattern of holes may evoke an array of faces. Furthermore, its whiteness has a spectral quality. Magritte first used simulated paper cut-outs (almost certainly made using home-made stencils) in 1927, and from the beginning saw them as devices with which to provoke conflicting sensations of surface and depth within the illusory depth of the painting as a whole. In ‘One-Night Museum’, 1927 (repr. Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, no.171), for example, a paper cut-out covers a box-like compartment, partially concealing its contents. Commenting on this tantalising aspect of Magritte's imagery, his friend Paul Nougé wrote in late October or early November 1927, ‘What impresses me particularly is the function you assign to these paper cut-outs, inexplicable objects which serve to hide, but in fact to suggest more powerfully than through the image everything that it conceals, for one cannot suppose that it conceals nothing’ (quoted in Hayward Gallery exh. cat., 1992, under no.27). In T04367 the holes in the paper cut-out allow the viewer to see that the pattern of bells and ripples in the metal sheet continues behind the piece of paper in some places but not in others. In his 1992 monograph (p.187) Sylvester writes, ‘The patterned cut-out is ... an apparition of a figure - here a charismatic figure which, when placed against the background of the iron curtain hung with bells, looks like a sacred being. It has a form like that of certain carvings from New Guinea and other Pacific islands, the lands which the Surrealists perceived as being supremely fertile in the marvellous’.

The slightly molten, brown rocks in the foreground of ‘The Annunciation’ were a rare element in Magritte's repertoire of standardised images. They were partially foreshadowed, however, in the close-up view of faceted brown rock surfaces included in ‘The Obsession’, 1928 or 1929 (repr. Sylvester and Whitfield 1992, no.299). Like other elements in T04367, some of the rocks suggest human forms, and distantly echo the draped figures found in a number of Magritte's paintings of c.1928 (see, for example, ‘The Lovers’, 1928 (Australian National Gallery, Canberra, repr. ibid., no.251).

‘The Annunciation’ passed into the hands of E.L.T. Mesens in early July, and it was through Mesens's activities as Magritte's dealer and an active promoter of Belgian Surrealism that the painting came to be known. Though Mesens owned many paintings by Magritte, Mesens sent only T04367 in early 1931 to an exhibition at the Galerie Giroux, Brussels, organised by ‘L'Art vivant’, a society newly formed to champion contemporary art. It was the first time Magritte's work had been given prominent display in Belgium since his one-man show in Brussels in 1928. However, Sylvester and Whitfield have been able to trace only one review of this exhibition which noted simply that Magritte, together with several younger artists, had submitted ‘controversial works’ (Armand Eggermont, in Le Thyrse, Brussels, 1 Feb. 1931, pp.70–1). When T04367 was exhibited in December 1931 at the Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, it was listed in the catalogue as belonging to Alex Salkin (his name is inscribed on the painting's stretcher), a lawyer and friend of Magritte. However, the work was back in Mesens's collection by 1936, where it remained until his death in 1971. Mesens was on the committee that selected works for the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936, and lent T04367 to this show. A photograph of it hanging in the exhibition is reproduced in Roland Penrose, Scrap Book 1900–1981 (1981, p.63). Here, too, it aroused no press comment.

More recently, however, it has come to be seen as one of the artist's most important works. In 1969 David Sylvester chose this painting to be reproduced on the front cover of the Magritte retrospective which was organised by the Arts Council and held at the Tate Gallery. In the 1978 Brussels exhibition catalogue (p.66) Sylvester wrote that nowhere else in Magritte's work were ‘irony and a sense of the marvellous more subtly or more mysteriously interwoven’.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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