Approaching Puberty… (The Pleiades), 1921
For this work, Max Ernst has cut out the figure of a reclining female nude from an existing picture, rotated it though 90 degrees and pasted it onto the painted ground. Although the woman’s face is missing, we can imagine her gazing pensively at the stone below her. Her right arm is raised to her head, while her left arm passes like a sword through a dark disc. The artist has integrated the French caption as a component of equal importance. Like the picture, it offers unlimited scope for associations. In a language rich with allusions, Ernst seems to be equating the woman with the Pleiades, a constellation named after a group of virgin nymphs in a Greek myth. They were transformed into stars by Zeus to save them from the hunter Orion. Virginity and lasciviousness, the celestial and the earthly, floating and falling, grace and destruction—in this intriguing work Max Ernst holds a wealth of opposites in balance.
At the First Limpid Word, 1923
(Former mural from Paul Éluard’s house in Eaubonne)
This picture is dominated by a reddish-brown wall that largely obscures the view of the blue background. A feminine hand reaches through one of two narrow window openings. With fingers crossed, it holds a red ball or fruit. Attached to this is a thread, which is suspended by nails from the wall, forming the letter ‘M’. Together with the ‘X’ shape of the fingers this can be interpreted as Max Ernst’s signature, like a monogram. At the same time, the motif of the fingers, which is taken from the illustration of a magic trick, also suggests a woman’s legs crossed—in conjunction with the red berries, an allegory of seduction. Pulling on the other end of the thread is a praying mantis, a symbol of aggressive sexual behavior. The representation, conceived as a magical picture puzzle, originally belonged to a series of murals that Ernst carried out in the home of the poet Paul Éluard in 1923. In them, the artist created a work that is permeated by a personal, erotic symbolism. He had begun a love affair with Éluard’s wife, Gala, while still living in Cologne, and the motifs and content of the mural cycle in Eaubonne probably contain allusions to the triangular relationship that continued between them in France. The Eduards’ house was later sold. It was not until the late 1960s that the paintings, which had been papered over, were rediscovered, detached from the walls, and transferred to canvas. The titles that they bear today are taken from poems by Max Ernst, who in addition to his artistic oeuvre also left an extensive body of literary work.
The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Artist, 1926
The three witnesses to this extraordinary scene are grouped on the far side of a small window opening: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and—with his eyes open—Max Ernst. The theoretician of Surrealism and his friends, the poet and the painter, are not the only spectators, however: we, the viewers, are also witnesses to this unprecedented sight. Facing towards us, seated on a plinth in an energetic, tensed pose, the Virgin— dressed in blue and red and crowned with a halo—is smacking her child. The boy is lying naked on his stomach across his mother’s lap, his curly blonde head lower than his legs. His buttocks are flushed red from the force of the blows and the fingers of his left hand are curved in pain, while his halo lies like a profane object on the edge of the plinth below. It is not the Virgin in her fury, but the Infant Christ who has lost his nimbus. This latter now encircles the artist’s signature—a further provocative displacement within this pictorial composition in a stage-like setting beneath an open sky.
Snow Flowers, 1929
The bright, colorful forms zipping across the canvas call to mind scattered flowers or scraps of fabric. Several clusters of flowers are attached to brown stems. The subtle shading and color gradients give the individual flowers an almost sculptural presence. Max Ernst here conveys the transition from two-dimensionality to the illusion of spatial depth in masterly fashion. The picture is playing with our perceptions, however, because what we interpret as the background is, in fact, the foreground. In other words: the artist has not placed his colorful forms on top of a dark background, but has covered a gaily painted canvas with areas of dark green, black, and blue. The floral shapes are ‘remnants’ of this originally brightly colored ground. The ‘snow flowers’ left visible exhibit surfaces of all different kinds—another means by which Max Ernst skillfully and deliberately makes his pictorial surface blossom.
The Entire City, 1935/36
In his magnificent painting The Entire City, Max Ernst shows us a mysterious landscape with an imposing city that is laid out on several levels across a hillside. A powerful yellowish green star hangs in the sky and an impenetrable jungle of grass spreads across the foreground. In this picture, Max Ernst not only combines extreme close-up with distant views, but also different layers of time. The city calls to mind antique ruins and the ancient temples built by lost civilizations. Perhaps the artist is also conjuring a vision of the future. Whatever the case, this is a city of the imagination and an architecture found in the realm of dreams.
The Fireside Angel (The Triumph of Surrealism), 1937
“A picture that I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain is The Fireside Angel. This is, of course, an ironic title for a rampaging beast that destroys and annihilates anything that gets in its way. This was my idea at the time of what would probably happen in the world, and I was right.”
In 1936, civil war had broken out in Spain. Like many members of the Parisian avant-garde, Max Ernst was a resolute opponent of the Spanish dictator, General Franco, who was supported by Germany’s Nazi regime. So the savage beast in the painting can be seen as embodying the calamity that fascism brought not only to Spain, but to the whole of Europe. An alternative perspective was offered by Ernst himself in 1938, when he spontaneously opted for a different title: The Triumph of Surrealism. He thereby unceremoniously proclaimed the painting a programmatic work of Surrealism and its revolutionary creed.
Nature at Dawn (Evensong), 1938
Luxuriant plants growing rampant, a tangle of leaves, stems, buds, and flowers. The imagery calls to mind the work of the French painter Henri Rousseau, which is no surprise, given that Max Ernst greatly admired him. Looking more closely at Nature at Dawn, we discover a variety of life forms. Prominent on the right, for example, is a bluish red, bird-like figure with human hands, while a second creature robed in blue can be seen set slightly further back in the left half of the picture. Everywhere we catch glimpses of faces, eyes, legs, feet, and other body parts. Grasses of tree-like stature form an impenetrable thicket, and pistils, ovules, and petals speak of extreme fecundity. This jungle of plants is densely populated with voracious and well-camouflaged creatures of species strange and unknown. In his painting, Max Ernst offers us not a natural paradise but a swathe of grass full of animals that have yet to find their way into our biology books.
The Robing of the Bride, 1940
In a scene that might be set on a theatre stage, a semi-naked woman with an exaggeratedly large bird mask and an opulent red cape is attended by strange courtiers. To the left of her stands a mysterious beast who is half man, half bird. Is this guard protecting her—or keeping her a prisoner? Whatever the case, the arrow in his hand has snapped and is of no further use to him. In art history, the arrow is traditionally an erotic motif that, when represented as broken, symbolizes the taking of a woman’s virginity. The tip of the arrow is also pointing unmistakably at the womb of the bird woman, whose hands move as to protect herself. The Robing of the Bride, as this painting is called, is repeated in the background as a picture within a picture. There the bird woman is standing in front of a ruined landscape. Woman appears again and again in Max Ernst’s cosmos in roles of all different kinds: as virgin, bride, victim, perpetrator, monstrous hybrid creature, and femme fatale.
Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941
When Max Ernst fled from Portugal to the United States in 1941, his luggage included this painting: Napoleon in the Wilderness. Once in America, he continued work on the enigmatic picture. It shows a strange group of figures on a seashore with flourishing vegetation: a horse-headed figure on stilt-like legs, striking a pose reminiscent of Napoleon; a totem pole apparently made of glass; a sea monster; and a seductive female, whose coral-like robes reveal rather than conceal her naked body. In her right hand she is holding what looks like a saxophone, in a clear reference to America and its musical culture. Ernst got to know this at first hand on a tour of the country that included New Orleans. The bell of the instrument has been transformed, however, into a gargoyle with gaping jaws. Is the siren trying to lure the protagonist to his ruin, as befell the Greek hero Odysseus? Stranded in a foreign country, the male figure seems lost. It is hence tempting to suppose a connection between this image and the situation of the artist in exile.
The King Playing with the Queen, 1944
Looking at the large plaster sculpture of The King Playing with the Queen, we are instantly drawn into the game. Our opponent is the diabolical horned king who rises from a stepped, blocklike base. In front of him—or between him and us—lies a narrow board, slightly raised, with seven figures. These can be easily recognized from their arrangement as chess pieces. Between the bishop and the queen is a large gap—where the king would normally stand. Max Ernst has taken him off the chessboard and set him down behind it. The chess piece now has become the chess player. The king has grown long, thin arms and has taken the game quite literally into his own hands! He has already captured one piece, a pawn, and holds it hidden behind his back. We watch, fascinated, as the game plays itselfand as the king ‘cheats’. He appears as an all-powerful strategist manipulating everything—not just his queen—to his own ends.
Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1945
In 1945, Max Ernst took part in an unusual art contest. The director Albert Lewin needed a picture of the Temptation of Saint Anthony for his film, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, adapted from a novel by Guy de Maupassant. The work was meant to appear in a key scene of the black-and-white movie as a close-up in color. Max Ernst’s painting won the first prize. Imaginative and gruesome in equal measure, Ernst’s representation of the Saint Anthony legend draws on earlier treatments of the theme from the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Symbolism. The Surrealist painter was inspired in particular by the corresponding scene in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Ernst gives a vivid depiction of the ascetic Anthony being tormented by demons, who are seeking to lead him astray from his life of devotion as a hermit.
The Garden of France, 1962
In 1953 Max Ernst left the United States and returned to Paris. He painted The Garden of France in 1962 in Huismes (Touraine), between the rivers Loire and Indre, where he had bought a house for himself and his wife, the artist Dorothea Tanning. The artist shows his chosen home in bird’s-eye view, as it were on a map. He has even noted down the names of the rivers and their direction of flow, although in reality they do not flow counter to each other. Melding with this almost factual, reduced representation of the landscape is a naked female body—the copy of a 19th-century nude that Max Ernst has painted over. The snake coiled above her knee suggests that she might be Venus, Cleopatra, or Eve. Whatever the case, in this garden of paradise, fertility and corruption are intimately entwined.