From Magritte to Leonora Carrington: Christie's big sale of surrealist art

"The Art of Surreal," is Christie's traditional sale devoted to surrealist art: now in its 22nd edition, this year features major works by Magritte, Leonora Carrington, Yves Tanguy, Remedios Varo and many others.

The Tower of Pisa is dyed indigo, supported gently by a feather. Like a caress, as high as the leaning bell tower, intense enough to keep it standing. It rests with its usual tilt in a desert that fades on the horizon to a pink, fuzzy, suffused sky. An impossible vision? Only in reality. But then again, the real is but one manifestation of the possible. The others are entrusted to fantasy, to dreams, to art. And, in this last specific field, in particular, to the plots of Surrealism. To its visions. And it is precisely from the movement of dreamlike moors and visual paradoxes that the scene described in the opening is derived. Composition that is contemplated in the architecture of Souvenir de voyage, a 1958 painting by the master of illusion René Magritte, one of the most beloved authors of the movement born in the 1920s in Paris from the verses of André Breton. The work, which interprets in an original way the poetics of the impossible conceived by the Belgian painter, finds concreteness in its economic valuation by Christie’s: 2.5-3.5 million pounds. This is the estimate with which the Anglo-Saxon auction house offers for sale the painting, one of 32 lots that make up the auction-event Memory of a Surreal Journey: Property from an Important San Francisco Bay Area.

The content of the core group of works is self-explanatory, with the collection to be auctioned in London between now, Feb. 28, during the evening auction The Art of the Surreal, and the second round “on paper” on March 3, at the Impressionist and Modern Art Day and Works on Paper Sale. In it we find condensed a diverse range of European, Latin, and American authors. The collection-generally referred to as coming from the San Francisco area-has been built up over more than two decades of acquisitions. The first, as the parent company tells it, occurred following a formative trip to Mexico, a country considered by Breton himself as the Surrealist place "par excellence." Within it sharp, and if you will, unusual, is the abundance of works by women artists, now more than ever on the crest of the wave. These include works by Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini and the lesser-known Stella Snead, a Londoner who fled to the States during World War II.

A rediscovery, theirs, that has been going on for a few years now. Especially significant is their presence in the exhibition The Milk of Dreams, the main exhibition at the Venice Art Biennale 2022 directed by Cecilia Alemani, as well as in several exhibitions scattered around the world last year, from the Guggenheim in Bilbao to the Tate in London and the MoMA in New York. If Surrealism has been seducing art lovers for a century with its magical and elusive charge, we actually still know too little about its female interpreters. As, for example, of the friendship that bound Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. A bond that is also reflected in their artistic practices, steeped in the mystical and ritualistic traditions of Mexico. It is precisely of esotericism and relatedness that the Iberian painter’s Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez (1957, estimate £2.5-3.5 million) speaks.

René Magritte, Souvenir de voyage (1958; olio su tela, 40,1 x 30,2 cm)
René Magritte, Souvenir de voyage (1958; oil on canvas, 40.1 x 30.2 cm)
René Magritte, Le retour (1950; gouache su carta, 296 x 417 mm)
René Magritte, Le retour (1950; gouache on paper, 296 x 417 mm)
Remedios Varo, Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez (1957; olio su masonite, 94,6 x 61,9 cm)
Remedios Varo, Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez (1957; oil on masonite, 94.6 x 61.9 cm)
Leonora Carrington, Quería ser pájaro (1960; olio su tela, 120 x 90,2 cm)
Leonora Carrington, Quería ser pájaro (1960; oil on canvas, 120 x 90.2 cm)
Yves Tanguy, Merveilles des mers (1936; olio su tela, 55 x 46 cm)
Yves Tanguy, Merveilles des mers (1936; oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm)
Óscar Domínguez, Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle (1934; olio su tela, 100,2 x 80,8 cm)
Óscar Domínguez, Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle (1934; oil on canvas, 100.2 x 80.8 cm)

Disciplines that in Central America at the time were still mixed with science and medicine, here represented by Dr. Chávez, a distinguished Mexican cardiologist and founder of the Instituto Nacional de Cardiología in Mexico City. Also up for auction is a portrait of Carrington, Quería ser pájaro (1960, estimate £900,000-1.4 million), which depicts the young actor Enrique Álvarez Félix. Only son of legendary actress María Félix, here immortalized performing a kind of cosmic etching on a copper-earth-colored egg, surrounded by mysterious creatures shrouded in purplish stardust. Pure alchemy. Who knows, the work may end up challenging the artist’s auction record set by The Garden of Paracelsus ($3.3 million at Sotheby’s last year).

There is no shortage of works by more acclaimed authors, such as the aforementioned Magritte, featured at auction with two other masterpieces, the two top lots in the catalog. The first is the mystical, calibrated on metaphysical shades of pink, Le masque de la foudre: sensual female portrait complete with typical pipe in the foreground suspended, enigmatically, over the naked belly (1965, estimate £3-5 million). The second, the absolute top price, is Le retour (1950), a variation on one of the artist’s most iconic motifs, namely the dove turning into the sky and soaring over a starry night. The classic, but never exhausted, Magrittian visual paradox. Unlike other examples, however, such as the famous Le baiser, it is day that replaces night in the bird’s body, while the surrounding seascape bathed in moonlight remains bathed in darkness. Its appeal lies in being a vision that is at once immediately identifiable and yet otherworldly. From a technical point of view, Le retour also emphasizes the extension of Magritte’s artistic practice.

Being a gouache, the work is a useful device for observing what role the artist entrusted to works on paper. Not an additional medium in which to give a new window of life to a subject, thus reproduced adherently, as if it were traced. But, on the contrary, a medium where he could rethink his creations and experiment with different solutions. On the other hand, paper is a lighter and cheaper material, useful for the artist to spread his visual ideas-concepts to a wider audience. Le retour went to auction at Christie’s back in 2004, when it fetched £900,000. Now it is up for auction again with an estimate of £4-6 million. Can it beat itself? Surely yes, but just as surely it will not challenge the record of The Empire of Lights set at 60 million just a year ago on the other side of the Thames on New Bond Street.

But Surrealism is not just Magritte, as evidenced by the lots that one by one follow one another in the catalog. See under Yves Tanguy, at auction with a landscape devoid of spatial references, almost infinite, entitled Merveilles des mers and estimated at £900,000-1.5 million. Or the Spaniard Óscar Domínguez with the cryptic and erotic Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle (1934-35), a work estimated at 2-3 million and smelling like a record for the artist, stuck at just over 2 million. Or like that insane sublimating and dissolving royal seats of Le fauteuil Louis XVI signed André Masson, estimated at £800,000-1.2 million. More difficult for this lot to challenge the painter’s record, which belongs to Gradiva, sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for 2.3 million euros. But never say never: in the world of dreams, even the impossible finds a way to manifest itself.

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