Max Ernst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 7, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Paul Eluard, Paris (1938)
    Roland Penrose, London
    E. L. T. Mesens, London
    Nierendorf Gallery, New York
    Frank Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills
    Burt Kleiner, Beverly Hills
    Richard Feigen Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1970)
    Galleria Galatea, Turin
    Andrée Strassart, Paris
    Paolo Marinotti, Milan
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Paris, Galerie Van Leer, Exposition Max Ernst, 10 - 24 March 1926, no. 6
    London, The London Gallery, Max Ernst, 15 December 1938 - January 1939, no. 29
    San Francisco Museum of Art, 20th Century German Paintings, January 1940, no. 1037
    Rome, Museo del Corso, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Roma, Max Ernst e i suoi amici Surrealisti, 24 July - 3 November 2002, p. 29 (illustrated on the cover)

  • Literature

    Werner Spies, Max Ernst Oeuvre-Katalog Werke 1906 - 1925, Cologne, 1975, no. 768, p. 400 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Max Ernst’s Colombe blanche was painted in 1925, at the very dawn of Surrealism. This historic picture features an image of a dove, one of the most important recurring symbols, or indeed characters, in Ernst’s work. Over the coming years, he would add to his avian mythology, creating his own pictorial avatar, Loplop, of which Colombe blanche is a precursor. Sometimes the bird would be caged, or dwarfed by a sinister nocturnal forest; by contrast, in Colombe blanche, the dove appears pale and serene, an image of apparent calm and tranquillity, its wings enfolding itself, depicted as though recalling vine leaves, a blurring of the animal and vegetable worlds that also hints at both Christian and Bacchic imagery. This picture, which is also sometimes known as Colombe d’or, showcases Ernst’s recent development of the frottage technique, with which he would revolutionise the role of painting within the Surreal sphere. This was his method of taking a picture surface—originally paper, and later canvas—and rubbing it against organic materials that would show through, for instance the grain of the wooden planks of a floor, as appears the case in Colombe blanche. These patterns would themselves serve as the springboard for Ernst’s pictorial adventures.

    Considering the importance of this technique to the incipient Surrealists, it is only too apt that the painting passed through the hands of some of the most important figures of the movement. It was first owned by his friend, the acclaimed poet Paul Eluard, an early supporter of the Dada and Surrealist artists whom Ernst had met earlier through the growing international network of authors and artists associated with Dada. Eluard subsequently sold it to Roland Penrose, who served as a vital link between Surrealism and the English-speaking world. Colombe blanche also featured in several important early exhibitions of Ernst’s works, including what he recalled as ‘[his] first relatively big show in Paris, at Galerie van Leer. The catalogue, in lieu of the usual sycophantic preface, included poems by Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret and Robert Desnos’ (‘Biographical Notes: Tussie of Truth, Tissue of Lies’, pp. 281-339, Werner Spies, ed., Max Ernst: A Retrospective, exh. cat., London, 1991, p. 301).

    The titular dove in Colombe blanche plugs into Ernst’s personality and indeed persona. Ernst himself claimed that he had had a long-standing confusion in his mind between people and birds, beginning with biographical and mystical experiences in his own youth. These came to inform a number of his paintings over the years, which often saw Ernst represented by a bird within the composition. In that sense, Colombe blanche can be seen as a form of Surreal self-portrait, or at least a projection of the artist’s own state of mind. Certainly, Colombe blanche was created at a vital juncture in Ernst’s life. He had recently signed a contract with Jacques Viot that had allowed him to give up the menial and industrial jobs that had hitherto sustained him, and to dedicate himself to painting. He did so with great relish. On a more personal note, his life was complicated, as it was only the previous year that the ménage-à-trois living arrangements that he had shared with Eluard and his Russian wife Gala (who later married Salvador Dalí) had come to an end. The return of all three protagonists to Paris at the end of 1924 had coincided with the first actions of André Breton’s new Surreal group, including the opening of his ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ and publication of the first Manifesto of Surrealism, both in October of that year.

    While Ernst had been absent during the drafting and signing of the manifesto, he soon found himself immersed within the Surreal firmament, partly because of the frottage technique in evidence in Colombe blanche. Ernst had been experimenting with frottage over recent years, but it now developed a true purpose, serving as a vehicle for near-automatic image production, in keeping with the tenets of the nascent Surrealism. Ernst used it in the series of works on paper, Histoire naturelle, which would be published the following year; when he transferred these techniques to his paintings on canvas, he launched upon a series of masterpieces, many of which would be shown alongside Colombe blanche at the Galerie Van Leer in 1926. The development of a Surreal visual language saw Ernst propelled to the front line of the group being spearheaded by Breton.

    The subject matter of Colombe blanche appears to be informed by the new Surreal movement, by Ernst’s own identifying with birds, and also crucially by other avant garde movements. The play of varied textures shown within the composition hint at the continued importance of Cubism, the movement that had come to the fore during the previous decade under the guidance of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. At the same time, the sense of duality contained within the image, with the white dove on the right and the black silhouette in negative on the left, hints at a long fascination with dichotomies on the parts of Ernst and other artists. In particular, the composition of Colombe blanche recalls a painting by one of the most prominent artists associated with Parisian Dada, Francis Picabia, La nuit espagnole of 1922, now in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne. The paintings share their contrast with light and dark, their interest in shadows and silhouettes, in presence and absence; even Ernst’s use of red echoes Picabia’s targets, which disrupt the black and white that dominates his picture. In Picabia’s picture, the two figures are clearly male and female, indicating that Colombe blanche may be inspired by Ernst’s love life, a notion emphasised by the enfolding wings of the bird. Is this a solitary, righteous dove, cast out by Gala and Eluard? The fact that the silhouette on the left contains a green tinge hints at a contrasting exoticism, as though it were some other facet of the white, almost clerical bird on the right.

    Colombe blanche was shown in Ernst’s 1926 exhibition at the Galerie Van Leer—where he would meet his second wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, the following year. This marked a further turning point in Ernst’s career—after a favourable review in the press, there was enough custom and attention given to his work that he was even hired by Sergei Diaghilev to create designs for Romeo et Juliette, which was to be performed by the Ballets Russes. Over a decade later, Colombe blanche was exhibited at the London Gallery, which had been set up by Penrose and Mesens partly to promote Surrealism in the United Kingdom. This was one of a group of works that Penrose, a painter and philanthropist as well as the husband of the photographer and Surreal muse Lee Miller, acquired from Eluard in 1938. Much of Penrose’s own collection of Surreal masterpieces now adorns the walls of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.


Colombe blanche

signed and dated ‘max ernst '25’ lower right
oil and graphite on canvas
65 x 50.5 cm (25 5/8 x 19 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1925.

£350,000 - 500,000 

Sold for £393,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018