Conservation Ernst

The partnership with the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse

The Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse has been partnering the restoration of art works in Europe, Asia and the United States for over 20 years, in the desire to play an active role in ensuring that museum holdings are preserved and can so be passed on to future generations. It has already sponsored over a dozen projects in Switzerland, benefitting the conservation of major works by Max Ernst, Mattia Preti, Auguste Rodin, Bram van Velde and Paolo Veronese. The Fondation Beyeler is delighted to be able to restore three key pieces in its collection with the support of the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. Over a period of three years, our team of conservators and curators will devote themselves to the following works: Henri  Rousseau’s painting Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope (1898/1905), Fernand Léger’s painting Le passage à niveau (1912), and the sculpture discussed here, Max Ernst’s The King Playing with the Queen (1944).

Art-historical background

The King Playing with the Queen numbers among Max Ernst‘s most important sculptural inventions and represents one of the highlights of the Fondation Beyeler sculpture collection. The magnificent plaster model of The King Playing with the Queen housed in the Fondation Beyeler was created in the highly productive year of 1944, when Max Ernst was living in exile in America. The artist later cast several versions of the sculpture in bronze. 

The work shows a horned male figure who is seated at a chessboard and is in the process of playing a move. The figure – the King of the chess game – calls to mind the Minotaur of Greek mythology, a monster who was half-man, half-beast. Max Ernst has taken the chess piece from the board and turned him into a player. The King reaches forward with his right hand either to protect the Queen or to stop her from advancing, while clutching a second piece in his left hand. The demonic King evidently plays with his subjects according to his own rules – the game is playing itself.

Max Ernst had already made a series of figural sculptures a decade earlier, while still living in France.  These sculptures, produced from 1934 onwards, present themselves as Surrealist works “with a symbolic function”. The painters, sculptors and assemblage artists of Surrealism aimed to create freely-invented images and objects out of a body of visions and myths.


Documentation of the current condition of the art work

Since the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, The King Playing with the Queen has only been moved within the building with the greatest care and has never left the museum. All requests from other institutions wishing to exhibit the sculpture on loan have been turned down. The primary reason for this is the fragile nature of the plaster medium, which has already suffered chips and cracks.
In the case of Max Ernst, we are furthermore looking at a sculptor who used an unusual method of construction. Old photographs of the artist’s studio show that Ernst pieced his sculptures together out of individual components. We must therefore ask whether he proceeded in the same manner when creating the present sculpture. The sculpture’s painted surface is also noticeably inhomogeneous in color. Its patchy appearance is the product of various historical layers of paint that have modified the original white of the plaster.

Objectives of the restoration project

1.    A first objective is to build up a detailed picture of the structural composition of Max Ernst’s plaster sculpture, in order to be able to reconstruct each stage of its complex construction.
2.    A second objective is to arrive at a better understanding of the esthetic appearance of the work, and how this appearance has arisen, by means of an in-depth analysis of the sculpture’s paint surface.
3.    A third objective is to gauge more accurately the fragility of the work with regard firstly to its mobility inside and outside the collection and secondly to the display conditions best suited to ensuring its stability and conservation.

Results

Structural composition

High-resolution X-rays were able to provide useful insights into the structural composition of the plaster. The interior of the sculpture consists of an armature made of wire of various thicknesses. Ernst also used fine wire mesh to strengthen large areas. The plaster sculpture was assembled out of individual elements that were cast from molds made by Ernst, reinforced with wire and then joined together.
The X-rays also yielded concrete evidence that the plaster sculpture was cast in bronze multiple times, since inside the sculpture we find e.g. threaded rods, nails and screws not used by the artist himself. The enlarged details of the X-ray show that the original armature has been partially sliced through (Fig.1).
In combination with the successful discovery of archival material, it has been possible to reconstruct what happened to the plaster sculpture at the foundry. In order to make the mold needed for the bronze cast, the foundry had to cut the original plaster sculpture into individual elements and then faithfully re-assemble them afterwards. This is a common procedure when making a cast.
This substantial intervention on the part of the foundry is documented by a historical photograph. The pale parts of the sculpture, where the plaster remains exposed and unpainted (see the neck, shoulders, wrists etc.), represent repairs by the foundry in the wake of the molding process. Here the original surface, lost when the sculpture was cut up into pieces, has been reconstructed in plaster by the foundry (Fig. 2).


Esthetic appearance and how it has arisen

Analysis of the paint surface has revealed that the sculpture carries two layers of blue paint (Fig. 3). This blue paint is original and was applied by the artist himself not long after completing the sculpture. The pigments and binders identified are the typical materials used by Max Ernst in his works on canvas, too.
These findings were confirmed by an early fashion photograph from 1945 (Fig. 4). This photo shows the plaster sculpture, already painted a homogeneous color, not long after it was created.
Looking at the paint surface in its present form, however, it is difficult for today’s viewer to appreciate its original blue color. Various layers deriving from the casting process and later interventions on the sculpture have built up on top of this blue paint. These fragments of other coatings are of great interest, since they alert the viewer to events in the sculpture’s past. They are part of a surface that has acquired its own history. Restoring this surface to an authentic condition would today be all but impossible on technical and ethical grounds.


Fragility

Our investigations have confirmed that the plaster sculpture is inherently fragile. The sensitive areas (incisions by the foundry, repairs) pose an ongoing risk with regard to the handling of the sculpture and its release on loan.

Max Ernst
"The King Playing with the Queen", 1944
Original plaster cast, 102 x 88 x 55 cm © ProLitteris, Zürich
Max Ernst
Photo: Dino Jarach

Max Ernst with The King Playing with the Queen during the 27th Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Centrale in June 1954.

X-Rax Photograph
Fig. 1: X-ray detail of the King’s neck, revealing the armature inside
Archival Photograph
Fig. 2: The sculpture re-assembled after casting
Analysis of the paint surface
Fig. 3: Two-layer structure of the blue paint surface
Fashion Photograph from 1945
Fig. 4: In the background: plaster sculpture painted a homogeneous color
Station