The faces of great men, monuments and famous pictures, strengthened by their smooth journey through time, continue to occupy a special place in our minds... And thanks to Magritte, it comes about that a plaster cast of Napoleon, Robespierre or Pascal, a forest vista, a patch of sky traversed by clouds and dreams, transfigure the very face of death in a totally unexpected way
Paul Nougé, 1933
(quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., pp. 21-22)
This painted cast of Napoleon's death mask is one of four known variants of the subject by Magritte recorded by David Sylvester. The other examples are housed today in the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum der Stadt Duisburg (Sylvester, no. 674) and the Tate Gallery, London (Sylvester, no. 687), while the fourth mask (Sylvester, no. 676) last appeared on the art market in the 1980s. Although the work has at times in its exhibition history been dated 1927, Sylvester believes the evidence points to it dating from around 1932. The idea of a painted plaster head made its first appearance in Magritte's work in a painting called La Forêt (Sylvester, no. 147) from 1927. In the following years, aside from the L'avenir des statues series of Napoleon's death mask, Magritte presumably painted plasters of other celebrated figures that are mentioned by Nougé above. These works are now lost.
Like his Surrealist colleagues, Magritte enjoyed unlocking the dormant power of the found object. He sought to free his subjects from their traditional, prosaic functions or associations, taking particular delight in unexpected juxtapositions. The resulting synthesis would, he hoped, disrupt the comfortable relationship between thought and reality. This strike for the metaphysical realm recalls the driving force of De Chirico and the present work, with its suggestion of the gravid antique fragment, suggests De Chirico's skillful manipulation of Greek and Roman sculpture. Moreover, in another possible allusion to the metaphysical, the cloudscape that decorates the plaster mask in L'avenir des statues recalls the transcendent "sky-clad" state of perfect liberation attained through a life of non-violence according to the tenets of the ancient Indian faith of Jainism.
Encountering L'avenir des statues perhaps it is best that the last word is left to Magritte himself. "People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking 'what does this mean?' they express a wish that everything be understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things" (quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, New York, 1985, p. 11).
L'avenir des statues
Oil on plaster
Property from the Collection of Rosemary and George Lois
Signed 'Magritte' (on the left side of the neck)
Rene Magritte , 20th Century, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, plaster/stucco, Belgium, Modern
London, London Gallery, Surrealist Objects and Poems, November 1937, no. 60.
London, London Gallery, René Magritte: Surrealist Objects and Paintings, April-May 1938, no. 12.
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Wonder and Horror of the Human Head: An Anthology, March-April 1953, no. 109.
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Collages and Objects, October-November 1954, no. 26.
London, Grosvenor Gallery, René Magritte, September-October 1961, no. 16.
London, Zwemmer Gallery, René Magritte, July 1966, no. 7.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen; Berlin, Nationalgalerie; Milan, Palazzo Reale; Kunsthalle, Basel and Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Métamorphose de l'objet: art et anti-art 1910-1970, April 1971-June 1972 (number varies; illustrated).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
Height: 13 in. (33 cm.)
D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. II, pp. 424-425, no. 675 (illustrated).
E.L.T. Mesens, London (by 1937).
Roberta Entwistle, London (acquired from the descendants of the above). Acquired from the family of the above by the present owners, 1984.