Max Ernst - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 13, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Galleria Alexander Iolas, Milan
    Galleria Levi, Milan
    Acquired from the above by the present owners in the early 1970s

  • Literature

    Werner Spies, ed., Max Ernst, Oeuvre-Katalog, Werke 1954-1963, Houston, 1998, no. 3209, p. 85 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    In 1954, Max Ernst was awarded the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale, marking a triumphant return for this pioneer of Dada and Surrealism. Having fled to the United States after the outbreak of World War II, Ernst had worked in isolation from the larger art world. His return to Paris in 1953 marked a turning point in both his life and career as he reconnected with collectors and dealers, and his work finally began receiving long-overdue critical recognition and wider appreciation. While the movements of Art Informel and geometric art were taking the European art world by storm, Ernst continued on his own artistic path with steadfast conviction. Painted circa 1956, Personnage is a quintessential example from this seminal period and perfectly encapsulates how Ernst developed his practice against the background of his earlier oeuvre.

    A luminous, otherworldly figure emerges from darkness in this composition, one that beautifully reprises the iconography and techniques that Ernst pioneered in such series as Histoire Naturelle, 1925. Embracing chance and Surrealist automatism inhis experimental practice, in the 1920s Ernst invented the analogous techniques of frottage and grattage. The former technique consisted of making pencil rubbings of objects and materials such as floorboards, twine, wire mesh, crumpled paper or bread crusts, while the latter involved scraping paint across the canvas to reveal the imprints of the objects placed beneath. Personnage demonstrates pictorial elements that, as Werner Spies’s most recent research has revealed, can be traced back to two ink collages that Ernst created in 1949 and 1950 and upon which he had printing plates made. Ernst would place these printing plates below the canvas to make a rubbing of the image, using one to create the right side of the figure’s head in the present work, and using the second multiple times in different orientations to build up the upper part of its body as he scraped oil paint across the surface.

    Covering the resulting kaleidoscope of line and color with thick black paint, Ernst harnesses the power of negative space to create form. As Werner Spies observed of works such as the present example, “Themes from the twenties and thirties – forests, hordes, astral motifs – are taken up again. In most cases the artist is content with laconic, simplified versions, but on a closer inspection it is evident that the empty areas in the pictures are activated with mesh, networks, scars, in short a great variety of tiny structures. The three-dimensional illusion…keeps the eye in constant motion” (Werner Spies, ed., Max Ernst, Oeuvre-Katalog, Werke 1954 -1963, Houston, 1998, p. X).

Property from an Italian Private Family Collection



signed "max Ernst" lower right
oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 21 1/4 in. (65 x 54 cm.)
Painted circa 1956.

$250,000 - 350,000 

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 13 November 2019