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

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Westchester, New York
    Sotheby’s, London, 5 May 1965, lot 79
    Private Collection
    Sotheby’s, London, 28 November 1995, lot 265
    Helly Nahmad, London
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Werner Spies, Max Ernst Oeuvre-Katalog Werke 1939-1953, vol. 5, Cologne, 1987, no. 2418, p. 60 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Max Ernst’s Le Surréalisme et la peinture is an exquisite Surrealist pastel dating from 1942, when the artist was based in New York. A study for the celebrated oil painting of the same title, housed in the Menil Collection in Houston, Le Surréalisme et la peinture provides an insight into Ernst’s unbounded and inspired psyche, as well as his working methods. Ernst’s composition, with the sinuous, interlocking forms of the nestling birds, displays the artist’s expansive exploration into the unconscious whilst reflecting his provocative interpretation of the external world. The figures are gracefully huddled at the forefront of the composition, their accented fluid tones set against the cool blue of the skyline. Around the smallest of these birds in particular lingers a sense of the anthropomorphic, of human limbs arcing back and forth. Humanistic yet bird-like in their presence, the identity of these creatures is deliberately left to the imagination of the viewer, revealing the power of Ernst’s ability to conjure natural yet fantastical visions from his subconscious.

    Le Surréalisme et la peinture was created at a tumultuous time for Ernst. He was living in New York, having escaped from the carnage and confusion of the Second World War, which had seen him repeatedly arrested as a foreign national. His marriage to the wealthy collector and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim was coming to an end, while his relationship with Dorothea Tanning, the young artist who would a few years later become his fourth wife, was blossoming. Ernst had few collectors during this period, yet his works and ideas found fertile ground in the up-and coming generation of avant garde artists working in New York at the time. Le Surréalisme et la peinture, a highly-finished work in its own right, was a pivotal study for one of the masterpieces of the influential surrealist’s oeuvre. The larger painting of the same title was painted for the legendary First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York, which was organized by Marcel Duchamp and featured around thirty artists, propelling the Surrealists to the forefront of the avant garde in the United States. The larger picture showed the huddled bird-like creatures on the left, with one of them extending a limb and appearing to paint a picture that appears like some impossible cosmic map. Le Surréalisme et la peinture reflected Ernst’s profound preoccupation with automatism, which was showcased through a number of techniques, including the craft of creating a picture within-a-picture, by dripping paint from a can suspended by a string and set in motion, pre-empting Jackson Pollock’s works.

    In Le Surréalisme et la peinture, the artist’s refined technical ability finds a point of convergence with his imagination, represented by these humanistic bird-like creatures. As such, Le Surréalisme et la peinture shares both its title and preoccupations with André Breton’s groundbreaking essay of 1928. The present work clearly explores the author’s concern with an internal model and automatism in art, ‘pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought’ (André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme, Éditions du Sagittaire, 15 October 1924). The final painting, considered one of Ernst’s greatest contributions to this debate on automatism, displays the importance Ernst placed on Breton’s discourse. Breton praised the emphasis that Ernst in particular placed on automatism, noting that the only form that relates to the synthesis of sensuous and rational roles is graphic self-expression freed from control. The present work exemplifies this, while also highlighting Ernst’s ‘own particular mixture of activity and passivity’ (Werner Spies, Max Ernst Werke 1939-1953, vol 5., 1987, p. VIII).

    The protagonists, three bird-like figures worked in satin tones, are affectionately intertwined against a gradated tranquil blue landscape. Ernst’s preoccupation with birds harked back to his childhood and in particular the birth of his sister on 5th January 1906, which coincided with the death of his beloved pet parrot Hornebom. The artist came to believe that his parrot had been reincarnated as his newly born sister, and from that point onwards conflated and confused humans and birds. Ernst himself came to identify with birds throughout his oeuvre: they had first emerged as a recurring theme during his early involvement with the Dada movement in Cologne in the late 1910s. One of Ernst’s most important motifs, the bird revealed the depth of his imagination and personality, eventually materializing as Loplop, the artist winged alter-ego, around 1927 - 1928. By 1942, the year of the present works execution, Ernst was penning his Surrealist autobiography, within which he highlighted his magical birth as an eagle, ‘his first contact with the sensible world, when he came out of the egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest and which the bird had brooded for seven years’ (Max Ernst, quoted in "Some Data on the Youth of M.E. As Told by Himself", View 2, no. 1, 1942, p. 28).

    Le Surréalisme et la peinture appears to be an instinctive composition, revealing the innermost workings of the artist’s creative mind. This is one of a group of studies executed in 1942 which explore distorted, hybrid, bird-like figures arranged in differing harmonious configurations, culminating in the painting in Houston. One of these, Maternity, a monochromatic chalk drawing in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents two bird-like figures clearly linked to those in the present work. In title, Maternity directly references and explores the notion of familial, maternal and paternal instincts, providing the viewer with an additional context within which to frame Le Surréalisme et la peinture, in which two larger birds are sheltering the smaller one. This highlights the artist’s masterful ability to translate verbal and theoretical themes into visual imagery whilst channelling his own deeply personal memories and interventions.


Le Surréalisme et la peinture

signed 'Max Ernst' lower right
pastel on paper
54.4 x 44 cm (21 3/8 x 17 3/8 in.)
Executed in 1942.

£350,000 - 450,000 ‡♠

Sold for £429,000

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018