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Curators Are One Piece Closer to Solving the Mystery of Magritte’s Missing Painting

The Enchanted Pose is coming back from the dead—one painted-over quarter at a time

Magritte apparently recycled a lost painting to create The Human Condition. (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)
smithsonian.com

René Magritte is best known for his surrealist paintings, like a man with a bowler hat and no face or a pipe that is not a pipe. But his most surreal artistic feat may turn out to be one that’s slowly taking place years after his death. As Dalya Alberge reports for The Guardian, a missing piece of a lost painting by the Belgian artist has been uncovered, bringing curators one step closer to solving a mystery nearly 90 years in the making.

In 1927, the artist displayed a painting called The Enchanted Pose, which depicted two female nudes. Five years later, Magritte was asked to pick the painting up from an art gallery, where it had failed to make the grade for a group exhibition. Then the painting disappeared. Just one black-and-white image of The Enchanted Pose documented its existance. The painting was presumed missing or damaged.

The plot thickened in 2013, when curators at the Museum of Modern Art were preparing a Magritte retrospective. They decided to use advanced imaging techniques to learn more about some of the master’s paintings. When they X-rayed The Portrait, a 1935 still life of a bottle of wine and a plate with an eye on it, they discovered something that reminded one curator of the lost painting. It turned out to be a quarter of The Enchanted Pose, which Magritte had apparently cut up and recycled for other paintings.

This led to an international hunt for the other three quarters of the image. Curators found one quarter of the painting beneath The Red Model, a 1934 painting of a pair of feet transformed as boots. And now, writes Alberge, a group of British curators at the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery has found a third quarter tucked beneath The Human Condition, the surreal landscape that contains a painting within a painting that Magritte completed in 1935.

“I realized there were striking similarities between the Norwich painting and these two other works by Magritte, notably size and the date of execution,” said Alice Tavares da Silva, a curator at Norfolk Museums Service, in a release. As in the other discoveries, the paint on the edges of the canvas matched up with the composition of the other painting. An X-ray analysis confirmed da Silva’s suspicion, which means there’s just one more quarter to go before the painting has been completely relocated.

But the chase for The Enchanted Pose is a somewhat quixotic quest. As Ellen Gamerman points out for The Wall Street Journal, even if all four portions of the painting are located, there’s no way the painting will ever be fully reconstructed or displayed. After all, the presumably four Magritte paintings that overlay the split-up sections of The Enchanted Pose would have to be destroyed in order to restore the original painting. And there’s no way to know why Magritte cut up the painting to begin with—maybe he was disappointed that it didn’t cut the mustard, or simply needed some more canvas to paint on. But with each piece, art historians learn more about the ways in which Magritte worked. A fourth piece of The Enchanted Pose might just be out there, waiting to bring a mystery worthy of the most surreal of painters to a close.

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