Tickets

Fragile plaster sculpture

The sculpture The King Playing with the Queen (1944) is one of Max Ernst's most important sculptural creations and is a highlight of the Fondation Beyeler's sculpture collection. The examinations conducted by the team of conservators provided important information about the sculpture’s construction and the interventions it was subject to over the years.  

Art-historical background

Ernst executed the precious plaster version of The King Playing with the Queen, found today in the Beyeler Collection [[link]], during his American exile in 1944, a productive year. He later had several bronze versions cast. The piece shows a horned figure seated in front of a chessboard, playing. The prominent figure — the king of the game — is reminiscent of the Minotaur of Greek mythology, a monster that was half man, half bull. Ernst took the most important chess piece from the board and turned it into a chess player. The king protects the queen with his right hand and at the same time prevents her from advancing, while he hides another chess piece in his left hand. The demonic king is playing with his subjects according to his own rules — the game is playing itself.

As early as 1934, Ernst executed a series of figural sculptures that he presented as Surrealist works “with a symbolic function.” Surrealist painters, sculptors and object artists endeavored to create pictures and objects based on a store of myths and visions.

Show more Show less

Initial condition

Since the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, the sculpture had been displayed and moved inside the museum only with extreme caution. The piece was also unavailable for temporary loans. One reason for this was the fragile plaster material, which already showed cracks and breakage. 

In addition to the issue of the work’s fragility, conservators wanted to understand the process by which the sculpture had been made. Indeed, Max Ernst's sculpture exhibits a structural peculiarity: old studio photographs show that he constructed the sculpture out of separate pieces. The surface of the sculpture also shows noticeable differences in coloring. Various historical layers of paint cover the original white of the plaster.

Show more Show less

Structure of the plaster

High-resolution X-ray photographs provided revealing information about the structure of the plaster. The interior of the sculpture contains an armature made of wires of different strengths. Ernst also used fine metal mesh to support larger areas. The construction of the plaster sculpture was achieved by assembling the separate parts. He made molds and casts for the separate parts, reinforced them, and then assembled them. 

The X-ray examination also provided concrete information about the sculpture’s repeated bronze casting. It revealed threaded rods, nails and screws inside the sculpture that were not used by the artist (figure 1). Enlargements of details on the X-ray photographs show that the original armature was cut in some places.

Examination and comparison with recently found archival material pointed to major interventions on the sculpture by the foundry. During the complicated casting process, the foundry first needed to take the sculpture apart and then reassemble it in its original form — a typical procedure in casting. The unpainted white areas of the sculpture (neck, shoulder, wrist, etc.) were plaster repairs effected by the foundry after the casting. The foundry also used plaster to reconstruct the original areas that had been lost during dismantling.

Show more Show less

X-ray

Figure 1: A detail of the neck taken with X-rays shows the structural underpinnings of the sculpture. Reinforcements made from a variety of materials are clearly visible in the body of the plaster.

the artwork

Examination and comparison with recently found archival material pointed to major interventions on the sculpture by the foundry. During the complicated casting process, the foundry first needed to take the sculpture apart and then reassemble it in its original form — a typical procedure in casting. The unpainted white areas of the sculpture (neck, shoulder, wrist, etc.) were plaster repairs effected by the foundry after the casting. The foundry also used plaster to reconstruct the original areas that had been lost during dismantling.

Coats of blue paint

Figure 2: An enlarged cross-section of the paint layer shows that the original version featured two coats of blue paint. The paint was applied shortly after the sculpture was created and is comparable to the pigments Max Ernst used in his paintings.

the artwork

Analysis of the paint layer

An analysis of the paint revealed that the sculpture was covered with two layers of blue paint. The blue paint is original and was applied by the artist himself shortly after making the sculpture (figure 2). The pigments and binders analyzed were materials typically also used by Ernst in his works on canvas.

For the viewer today, however, the original blue paint is hardly visible to the naked eye. The coats of blue paint are covered by various layers from the casting process and later interventions. A fashion photograph taken in 1945 shows the plaster sculpture coated in a uniform color shortly after it had been put together, confirming these observations (figure 3). The many layers and fragments of paint show the sculpture’s history: they are now part of the historical surface. A restoration of the original state is hardly possible given today's technical capabilities and ethical code. 

The reseach project confirms the fragility of the plaster sculpture. The fragile areas (cuts made by the foundry, reworking, etc.) represent risks for handling and transport.

Show more Show less

Historical photograph

Figure 3: In the background of this fashion photo from 1945 we see the sculpture in its original condition: a homogenous version without the present reconstructions at the neck, shoulders, elbows and hands.

the artwork