André Pisart, Brussels
Private Collection (by descent from the above)
Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2000
Painted in 1926, Forêt et soleil belongs to one of the most creative periods in Max Ernst’s œuvre, marked by a constant stream of technical experimentation and invention. It was during these years that the artist established his personal mythology, his visual universe of themes and images that were to become central to his entire career. One of Ernst’s key subjects was the forest, and it was in the series of Forêt paintings of the 1920s that Ernst for the first time fully explored his newly developed grattage technique. His experimentations with ways of applying pigment onto the surface resulted in the discovery of frottage in 1925. Fascinated by the rich texture of the floorboards, he would place sheets of paper onto their surface and rub over them with graphite. This would result in various relief-like forms that suggested particular images to the artist, and with a few strokes added by hand he would arrive at fantastic, unexpected compositions.
Adapting this technique to the medium of oil painting, Ernst would cover the canvas with layers of paint and place it over an uneven surface or an object. He would then scrape the pigment off the surface, and complex patterns would emerge. Discussing this grattage technique, Werner Spies wrote: ‘Max Ernst laid his canvas over various objects with raised textures – pieces of wood and string, grates, textured glass panes – and, drawing the paint over them with a palette knife, brought forth the most vivid effects. In the course of the following years – years which William Rubin has called the ‘heroic epoch of Surrealist painting’ – this technique, known as grattage, led to astonishingly innovative imagery. The pictures became more abstract in effect, their formats larger. The dramatic force of these paintings, the richness of their scintillating colour, made them high points of imaginative Surrealist art in the late 1920s’ (W. Spies, Max Ernst. A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 148).
Ernst’s treatment of the theme of the forest certainly shows his affinity for the German Romantics, as first pointed out in 1956 by his biographer Patrick Waldberg, who argued that Ernst’s link with his predecessors was not so much in the actual works, as in his attitude to life and the problems of creativity. In her essay Max Ernst and Romanticism Karin von Maur observed: ‘In the 1920s it is again not so much direct references to German Romanticism as a certain affinity of mood that is found in Max Ernst’s work. This is most apparent in the ‘Forest’ paintings, if for no other reason than that they have recourse to a motif with a long and rich tradition in Germany […]. This tradition, replete with mystical meanings and tied to notions of German nationhood, had been appropriated by a wave of cloying, patriotic neo-Romantic painting, and it took an artist of Ernst’s unencumbered, Dadaist frame of mind to revive a motif so burdened with significance’ (K. von Maur, in ibid., pp. 342-343).
For Ernst, as for Caspar David Friedrich more than a century earlier (fig. 1), the forest was a means of recording and uniting the inner and the outer worlds. The subject of the forest, which at the same time delighted and oppressed Ernst, was a metaphorical image for the unconscious, embodying both the pleasure of liberty and the fear of imprisonment, an idea echoed in Magritte's image published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1929 (fig. 2). His earlier treatments of this theme are executed in a bright palette, but soon Ernst invested the forest with a sombre atmosphere, creating threatening landscapes (fig. 3) that anticipate his later series of petrified cities. In the present work, an orange sun is setting behind a dark forest, bathing the sky with a subtle glow. The flat monochrome planes of the background are juxtaposed with the intricate variations of the central motif. Whilst each of the elements is in itself purely abstract, when seen together they create an imaginary, fantastic landscape populated by enigmatic, tree-like forms silhouetted sculpturally against the background. Combining his innovative grattage technique with the theme pivotal to Ernst’s œuvre, Forêt et soleil shows the artist at the pinnacle of his creative powers, and exemplifies his unique and remarkable contribution to the Surrealist movement.
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