René Magritte

The Spirit of Geometry


Not on display

René Magritte 1898–1967
Original title
L'Esprit de géométrie
Gouache on paper
Support: 375 × 292 mm
frame: 555 × 455 × 35 mm
Presented by the Hon. Ivor Montagu 1966

Display caption

Magritte exchanges the heads of a mother and a baby – compressing one and enlarging the other. The effect is at once uncanny, threatening, comic and perceptive. The shrunken mature woman and imposing child may unsettle the viewer but are intimately bonded with each other. Their inverted relationship seems to stand for the cycle of generations. The original title, ‘Maternity’, may have referred too literally to such themes before Magritte provided the current, more enigmatic, replacement.

Gallery label, April 2009

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Catalogue entry

René Magritte 1898-1967

T00892 L'Esprit de la Géométrie (The Spirit of Geometry) c.1936

Inscribed 'Magritte' b.r.
Gouache on paper, 14 3/4 x 11 1/2 (37.5 x 29)
Presented by Ivor Montagu 1966
Prov: Presented, probably by Magritte, to the Artists International Association to be sold in aid of Spanish relief; Ivor Montagu, Watford, Herts. 1937
Exh: René Magritte, Esher Surrey, The Hague, November-December 1936 (25) as 'Maternité' (watercolour); 1937 Exhibition - Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development, Artists International Association, 41 Grosvenor Square, London, April-May 1937 (605) as 'Maternity'
Lit: Louis Scutenaire, René Magritte (Brussels 1947), p.95
Repr: Simon Wilson, The Surrealists (London 1974), pl.4

A very similar gouache of the same theme - a mother holding a baby but with the heads interchanged - was shown in the Magritte exhibition at Notizie, Turin, in March-April 1965 (repr. in catalogue p.12) and subsequently passed through the hands of the Galerie La Boétie, New York. It is the same size as this work and resembles it very closely, the main differences being that the woman's hair is dark instead of fair and the child has some hair on its head instead of being completely bald. The colours are more or less the same.

The Tate's version formerly had a label on the backboard in the artist's handwriting inscribed 'René Magritte. Bruxelles | "Maternité"'. However, Magritte wrote to Luciano Pistoi of Notizie in 1965 that the work in his exhibition should be called not 'Maternity' but 'The Spirit of Geometry'. Mme Magritte confirms (letter of 19 November 1976) that her husband did not like the original title 'Maternity' and decided to change it to 'The Spirit of Geometry'.

David Sylvester has suggested that the Tate's gouache was probably the one exhibited at The Hague in November-December 1936 and that Magritte or Mesens gave it to the AIA a few weeks later to be sold in aid of Spanish relief, and Magritte then painted the other version as a replacement. Magritte was in London in February-March 1937, painting for Edward James. Various of the Magrittes exhibited at The Hague later turned up at the London Gallery, and it is possible that Magritte obtained this gouache from the London Gallery's stock with the promise to paint a further version.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.464, reproduced p.464

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