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'The waves of the North Sea bring me fresh air and joy'

After 37 years, Magritte’s surrealist masterpiece still inspires at Israel Museum

‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’ is at the center of a new exhibit telling the backstory of the work by the famed Belgian artist — as well as his art-loving friend who commissioned it

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • A view of 'Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,' the Israel Museum's new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)
    A view of 'Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,' the Israel Museum's new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)
  • A view of 'Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,' the Israel Museum's new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)
    A view of 'Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,' the Israel Museum's new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)
  • A view of 'Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,' the Israel Museum's new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)
    A view of 'Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,' the Israel Museum's new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)

René Magritte’s famed surrealist painting “The Castle of the Pyrenees,” depicting a large, castle-topped rock dangling in a blue sky over a churning sea, has hung in The Israel Museum’s modern art gallery since 1985.

The painting started out as a commissioned work, intended to cover the ugly view outside a New York City office window of the artist’s esteemed friend, lawyer and art lover Harry Torczyner.

Now the tale of this famed painting by the Belgian artist, and how it made its way to Israel’s largest art institution, is the focus of “Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,” the museum’s new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic work.

With the enigmatic painting at the center of the dove-blued walls of the exhibition, the evolution of Magritte’s focus on stones and rocks is explored through related works as well as pieces by other artists who were influenced by Magritte and his strange castle.

The Belgian artist and his Jewish, Belgian-born friend and patron Torczyner met in 1957, quickly establishing a bond as kindred spirits.

Torczyner had been raised by a nanny, a Dutch schoolteacher who taught Torczyner and his brother poetry and art, as his mother was running the family business and his father was a prisoner of war in Siberia during World War I.

He fled Belgium during the midst of World War II with his wife, Marcelle Siva Torczyner. After the young couple arrived in New York, Torczyner studied law at Columbia University, earning a degree and opening an international law practice. Art, however, was his passion and Torczyner purchased artwork even when his young family was struggling financially.

Belgian artist René Magritte and his dog Loulou at the Israel Museum in 1966; a new Israel Museum exhibit offers an in-depth look at Magritte’s iconic Surrealist work, ‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’ (Courtesy Israel Museum)

“He had a genius for picking them,” said his daughter, Evelyn Musher Shechter, speaking on the phone with The Times of Israel.

Magritte and Torczyner corresponded regularly after meeting, and in 1958, Torczyner commissioned Magritte to paint a portrait of him.

When Torczyner received the portrait in October 1958, he described to Magritte how the family had reacted to it: “My 13-year-old daughter… is delighted because the figure… draped in a barbershop smock with a balloon overhead, will have great appeal for her young friends. Her big sister, who knows the powers of the sovereign, admires it, and my wife likes it very much and declares that ‘justice has been done’… What name have you reserved for this portrait?”

Harry Torczyne/Justice has been done (Rene Magritte)

“We didn’t care a fig when he painted our father’s portrait,” Musher Shechter said, adding that the walls of their rent-controlled apartment were covered with either bookcases or paintings. “Lots of people painted my father. This one we liked just because it was fun. Some others were very dark, but he loved this one.”

Magritte’s “The Castle in the Pyrenees” was Torczyner’s next commission, discussed every step of the way in the correspondence between the art lover and artist.

“Magritte also worked that way,” said Musher Shechter. “He wanted that kind of input.”

Torczyner made some suggestions from the preliminary sketches, including his preference for a rough sea, depicting the North Sea of his childhood but on a clear day.

It took one month following Magritte’s completion of the work for it to reach Torczyner, who wrote that he was “in heaven.”

Art lover and lawyer Harry Torczyner with his commissioned Rene Magritte work, ‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’, now the subject of an Israel Museum exhibit, open through October 2022 (Courtesy Evi Musher Shechter)

“LONG LIVE MAGRITTE!…‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’ floats majestically and proudly. It is superb… and intact! The waves of the North Sea bring me fresh air and joy. For the moment, the painting is hanging on the wall, while a custom-made frame is being installed to cover the window,” wrote Torczyner.

The painting remained in Torczyner’s office for nearly two decades, removed only rarely to be displayed in exhibitions. Torczyner persuaded New York’s Museum of Modern Art to hold a comprehensive exhibition of Magritte’s work in 1965.

Torczyner preferred being known as an art lover rather than an art collector, Musher Shechter said.

But while he supported and purchased the works of many artists, “Magritte he really made,” she said. “He pushed and pushed to get the MOMA show and that’s what got Magritte out in the world.”

Magritte died of pancreatic cancer in 1967 at age 68. In 1985,  Torczyner decided to donate the work to the Israel Museum on the twentieth anniversary of its founding.

“Today The Castle of the Pyrenees is about to leave my office for Jerusalem,” Torczyner wrote at the time. “It will make another voyage across time and space, as I have set for it a trajectory as necessary as the elements Magritte had deemed necessary for his painting. In Jerusalem, the Castle of the Pyrenees will join other magic rocks, towers and walls.”

A view of ‘Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,’ the Israel Museum’s new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)

Torczyner had followed his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as a longtime supporter of the Jewish state, both prior to and following the country’s establishment. He was a founding member of American Friends of the Israel Museum, was deeply involved in the establishment of the Jerusalem-based institution and worked closely with its first directors.

He thought the Magritte would be popular with children, his daughter said, and it has been, drawing many budding artists to sit in front of the work and copy it.

“He was very insistent that it be there and not travel,” Musher Shechter said.

Even during the [1990] Gulf War, when the museum wanted to take the work off the wall [to keep it safe], Torczyner insisted that it remain hanging on the gallery wall.

Evi Musher Shechter, daughter of art lover Harry Torczyner, who commissioned one of Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte’s most famous works, later donating it to the Israel Museum, where it is now the subject of ‘Drifting With Magritte: Castles in the Air,’ a new exhibit offering an in-depth look at the iconic Surrealist work, through October 2022 (Courtesy Zohar Shemesh)

Torczyner’s entire art collection was sold in 1995 at auction when he was older and sick, and needed additional funds to ensure continued care of his wife.

“The whole collection was sold,” said Musher Shechter. “The [Lucio] Fontanas, [Frank] Stellas, the [Francis] Bacon my mother loathed. As they were auctioning off the Bacon, my mother said, ‘What do we have to pay them to take it?'”

But having been donated to the Israel Museum, “The Castle of the Pyrenees” has remained there to this day.

Harry Torczyner died in 1998 at age 87. The collection sale took care of Marcelle Siva Torczyner until her death in 2007, and many of the works later made their way to museum collections, said their daughter.

“There were paintings that were iconic,” she said, “and I always thought they belonged in public places, because people should enjoy them.”

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