- Max Ernst
Signed Max Ernst (lower right)
- Oil on canvas
Julian Levy Gallery, New York
Kenneth MacPherson, Rome
Private Collection (sold: Christie's, London, February 3, 2003, lot 155)
Acquired at the above sale
New York, Valentine Gallery, Max Ernst, 1942, no. 21
Stockholm, Moderna Museet & Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Max Ernst: Dream and Revolution, 2008-09, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Werner Spies, Sigrid & Günter Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1939-1953, Cologne, 1987, no. 2384, illustrated p. 42
Ludgar Derentha & Jürgen Pech, Max Ernst, Paris, 1992, illustrated p. 227
Please be advised that this work has been requested for the forthcoming Max Ernst retrospective at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, from January 23 until May 5, 2013, and the Beleyer Foundation in Riehen/Basel, from May 26 to September 1, 2013.
Having fled persecution as a German national in the initial days of World War II, Ernst arrived in the United States with a revelatory determination. Convulvulus! Convulvulus! exemplifies the sense of excitement and possibility that the artist felt in his early years in New York City. From a small and concise group of decalcomania masterpieces, the current painting is a brilliant example of the artist's wartime work.
Resonant in this painting is the dialogue between accidental abstraction and detailed naturalism - a tension that fascinated Ernst from his earliest moments as an artist. Amid the textured explosions of color, Ernst incorporates recognizable figures ranging from avian to human. He envelops these figures in a mineral landscape of decalcomania. By the late 1930s, Ernst had fully developed this technique from his earlier innovations of frottage and grattage. Werner Spies describes decalcomania as a method, "which involves the spreading of paint on a sheet, laying a second sheet on top of the first, pressing it in places, and then lifting it up to leave suggestive images... in general the images are fluid. They represent no known world but rather seem to devour one another and evolve in an endless metamorphosis, evoking some vegetal or cosmic process..." (Werner Spies, "Nightmare and Deliverance," in Max Ernst: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, pp. 13-14). This use of decalcomania within a semi-figurative landscape will reach its apotheosis in the masterful Europe After the Rain, which Ernst began in Europe and completed in 1942 (fig. 3).
The characters in Convulvulus! Convulvulus! are recognizable to us from Ernst's earlier works. In his groundbreaking collages, we often find the juxtaposition of luxuriating nudes with semi-humanized creatures (fig. 2). By the following decade, Ernst is preoccupied with his female figure, placing her in increasingly complex environments such as that of The Robing of the Bride in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (fig. 4). Shortly after Ernst arrived in New York, he was introduced to celebrated performer Gypsy Rose Lee who had gravitated to the Surrealist community. Ernst incorporated her sensual presence into his paintings, as he does at right in the current composition, presenting her in an environment of plenitude and fecundity.
Spies explicates the environment of the present work in a letter written to the current owners: "Convulvulus is a climbing plant which can snake towards the sky to a height of one hundred metres. In it there is this premise of a desire to swallow up those approaching and who are willing to ploy to its embrace. One is struck by the shape, which like a leaf dancing in the middle of the sky, takes possession of the space in the artwork. It stretches in a long band reminiscent of the fatal spring of the cobra. This motif along with the sucking movement of the vegetation is omnipresent. Already, numerous paintings representing hordes appear to be sucked into a vortex of dionysian force. This movement was something the artist sought to transcribe by the invention of new techniques. It also prefigured works such as Surrealism and Painting, in which several months later, a monstrous look- alike demonstrates how the artist used "dripping" so both he and his American counterparts could confer to their works a new-found spontaneity."
Spies continues, "In this seductive representation, Max Ernst fine-tuned his transfer technique. The veining of the leaves and the filigranne of foliage reached textural refinement, used in the work's theme. It was not a coincidence that Max Ernst turned to this motif that evoked both body and flora. In those years, it appeared regularly and representations of the jungle were articulated in numerous variations around the theme. Plants and bodies were interwoven to form a continuum. During his New York period of exile, recurrent themes were dance, the dancer, as well as veiling and suggestive unveiling. Convulvulus! Convulvulus! has acquired a fascinating autobiographical dimension."