Magritte’s L’empire des Lumières Headlines a Strong Showing of Surrealism at Frieze Masters
As one wanders through the aisles of Frieze Masters, it’s hard not to stumble upon art-market gems. Now in its fifth year, Frieze Masters briefly unites under the same tent a vast number of works from before 2000, separated by centuries and oceans, and spanning the history of art from ancient Cycladic figurines to paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. At this year’s fair, it’s a booth brimming with Surrealism that’s caught our attention. The Surrealists (and their offshoots) receive a special tribute in London-based gallery Dickinson’s booth, titled “Surrealist Revolution,” which includes works by Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Frida Kahlo—including her Plaster Corset with Hammer and Sickle (c. 1950), a painted cast of the artist’s torso and a reminder of a near-fatal accident that left her bedridden for most of her adult life. But the centerpiece of the booth is a remarkable painting by René Magritte.
Magritte’s 1949 L’empire des Lumières is the first from his popular and timeless series of oil paintings of the same name. Each painting beholds a variation of the same uncanny pictorial paradox presented in this first one—a luminous pastel-blue sky with puffy clouds, set against a dark, residential street illuminated by the light of a single lantern.
L’empire des Lumières was destined to become an instant classic. Within six months of being completed, the painting was snatched up for $500 by Nelson A. Rockefeller, the noted philanthropist who served as the Vice President of the United States from 1974–77, bought as a Christmas gift for his secretary Louise Boyer. Magritte went on to paint 16 more unique oil paintings following this theme between 1949 and 1964, many of which reside in museum collections such as those of the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
The “original” painting at Dickinson emits an unsettling stillness and displays incredible detail, as well as deft use of color and light—the eye is drawn to two deep red doors, and three ominous, glowing windows.
The painting has remained in a private collection for the last 35 years and reappears on the market at a timely moment—just weeks after Magritte’s retrospective opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The history of the painting, and the subsequent series of works, illuminates a remarkable episode in the history of the art market whereby the benefits of cultivating an artist-dealer (and collector-dealer) relationship are made manifest. The last decade has posed new challenges to the traditional artist-dealer relationship, whether through poaching or by artists opting out of official gallery representation. And even a year ago one would have expected a work at the high end of the art market like this one to come up for auction rather than appear at a fair. Given recent reports that suggest an art market slowdown, especially at the auction houses, the appearance of L’empire des Lumières at Frieze Masters also suggests that collectors might prefer their masterpieces to be sold through the private handling of art dealers during these uncertain times for the art market.
According to the gallery, the painting first crossed the Atlantic after Magritte started exhibiting in New York with an old friend, Alexander Ioalas, a Greek pianist and dancer who became an art dealer after he joined the esteemed Hugo Gallery in the mid 1940s. Hugo Gallery quickly rose to prominence after it was founded by Robert Rothschild, Elizabeth Arden, and Maria dei Principi Ruspoli Hugo in 1945; the esteemed collectors John and Dominique de Menil were among its financial backers.
Iolas became a champion of Magritte’s work in New York and is cited as being an important catalyst for the artist’s most iconic series. In their correspondence, Ioalas praised Magritte and urged him to create a new series of “poetic and mysterious” works to sell in New York. Created long after Surrealism’s radical heyday, “the work was created with the deliberate intention of attracting American buyers by producing the strongest and best-quality paintings for the American market,” Dickinson’s report on the painting explains.
After the first painting sold to Rockefeller, Iolas wrote to Magritte: “I have a very nice surprise for you: One of the most important collectors has purchased L’Empire des lumières before the exhibition, I am very happy because it means huge publicity, and will cause envy among all the other dealers who hold their noses in the air when I fight on your behalf.”
The following year, Magritte would revisit the motif—contrasting night and day, melancholy and hope, in a suburban street scene—with a slightly larger painting, the L’Empire des Lumières no. 2 (1950). The painting quickly sold to the de Menils, who, presumably, admired the original work. The de Menils donated the work to MoMA in 1951 and it remains in their collection today. It remains to be seen whether or not the first in the series will change hands during the course of this week’s fair.