Georgia Bottinelli (L) with conservator Alice Tavares de Silva, pictured with Magritte's La Condition Humaine. (c) Norfolk Museums Service

Q&A with Giorgia Bottinelli

Eleanor Mills, 19.09.2016
Missing piece of Magritte painting found in Norwich
The third quarter of Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte's lost painting of two female nudes, La Pose Enchantée, was recently rediscovered beneath the paintwork of another piece by the artist held in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery’s collection.

Museums Journal caught up with Giorgia Bottinelli, the gallery's curator of historic art, about the discovery.

What exactly has been discovered about René Magritte's painting, La Condition Humaine?

La Condition Humaine, an important 1935 painting by Surrealist artist René Magritte, was painted over the lower-right quarter of an earlier Magritte painting titled La Pose Enchantée, which has been missing since 1932.

Why is this significant?

Painted in 1927, La Pose Enchantée was the focus of the inaugural exhibition of the Galerie L’Epoque, run by the Belgian Surrealist artist and writer E.L.T. Mesens. It was a large painting (approximately 160 cm across) featuring two identical statuesque nudes resting their right arm on a fragment of column.

Although clearly owing a debt to the monumental figures of Picasso’s neoclassical period, the painting also featured duplication, which was an important feature in Magritte’s work of this time. Correspondence between Magritte and the Surrealist poet Paul Nougé in 1928 hints that they considered this painting an important work.

The last known mention of the painting, however, is a 1932 letter from the secretary of the Oeuvre Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a Salon in Brussels, requesting that Magritte remove La Pose Enchantée, which he had submitted for selection. Clearly the painting had been rejected.

How was the existence of part of La Pose Enchantée discovered? Did you know what it was when you found it?

La Condition Humaine was requested by the Centre Pompidou in Paris for their exhibition Magritte: La Trahison des Images (21 September 2016 to 23 September 2017).

In order to assess the painting’s condition and suitability for travel, we had it checked by Alice Tavares Da Silva, a paintings conservator from the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge, who regularly works with our collections as a freelancer.

Having unframed the painting, Alice noticed that the sections of canvas that wrapped around the back of the stretcher did not match the composition at the front. The paint on the bottom edge, in particular, appeared to show part of a separate composition altogether.

Where are the other parts? And is the search on to find the fourth quarter?

Puzzled by her discovery, Alice undertook some research and came across the news that in 2013 conservators had found parts of a different composition under Magritte’s paintings The Portrait, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and The Red Model, at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.

Through x-ray analysis and further investigation, MoMA’s conservator Michael Duffy had realised that The Portrait and The Red Model had been painted over the left half of La Pose Enchantée. Crucially, both paintings were dated 1935, like La Condition Humaine, and were of a similar size.

Comparing the lower edge of La Condition Humaine to the one surviving image of La Pose Enchantée, Alice became certain that our painting also formed part of the same composition and had it x-rayed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. The resulting image proved conclusively that this is indeed the case: La Condition Humaine was painted over the lower right quarter of La Pose Enchantée.

This discovery will hopefully make a difference to the search for the remaining quarter, as we now know which section is missing and its maximum size; we can probably also guess that it dates to 1935.

Could the three known paintings made from its quarters be considered a series of any sort?

No, the three paintings are very different. La Condition Humaine is the fourth composition of the same title that Magritte painted between 1933 and 1935. These depict an unframed painting on an easel in front of a landscape and can loosely be considered a series.

Will they ever be reunited and put on show together if all four are found?

Who knows?  If the fourth painting were to be discovered, it would be fantastic to reunite them to tell this amazing story… At this point all we can say is watch this space!

Has this discovery fostered opportunities with museums abroad that you hope to make happen in the future?

Since the discovery we have certainly forged a new link with MoMA and we hope to be able to continue working with them and other international institutions. We also hope that the attention this discovery has received will help put Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery’s remarkable art collection more firmly on the international map.