Painted in 1952, Constellation is a superb example of Max Ernst’s creative ingenuity and mastery of the grattage and frottage techniques which he first developed in 1925. Ernst had always looked for approaches to applying pigment that broke with traditional modes of representation, and his discovery of frottage would prove a key moment. On holiday in Pornic, France at the time, Ernst described the moment in some detail in his Biographical Notes: 'a rainy day in a seaside inn found me gazing at the floorboards of my room. My gaze became excited, then obsessed by the sight of the boards, where a thousand rubbings had deepened the groves [sic]. I decided then to investigate the meaning of this obsession and, to help my meditative and hallucinatory faculties, I made a series of drawings by placing on the boards sheets of paper, which I rubbed with black lead. I gazed at the drawings and, surprisingly, a hallucinatory succession of contradictory images rose before my eyes… A series of suggestions and transmutations offered themselves spontaneously' (M. Ernst, Biographical Notes, 1925, cited in W. Spies, Max Ernst. Life and Work, Cologne, 2005, p. 100).
This rich, new source of imagery was rapidly refined by Ernst, initially in a series of works on paper, and then, in a further development into the associated technique of grattage in which he covered canvases with a layer of paint before placing them over an object and scraping off the pigment to reveal the patterned surface beneath. In his constellations—which were among the most spectacular manifestations of this technique— Ernst combined large planes of abstract colour with the almost living structures of flowers or shells created through grattage. In Constellation, this technique produces a work of mesmerising beauty, contrasting the delicate, organic shapes of the yellow flowers against the dark cosmos of the background.