Born Elena Ivanova Diakonova in Kazan, Russia in 1894, she met Paul Eluard when she was sent to recover from tuberculosis at a sanatorium at Clavedel in Switzerland in 1912. Aged only seventeen and eighteen, the two fell wildly in love and four years later Gala moved to Paris and they married. In 1921, Eluard was introduced to the paintings of Max Ernst and was so struck by them that he set off for Cologne – with Gala – in order to meet the artist himself. The two men felt an immediate rapport, but Gala also had her sights set on Ernst. The artist’s then-wife, Luise Straus-Ernst, described Gala at the time: ‘that Russian female […] that slithering, glittering creature with dark falling hair, vaguely oriental and luminant black eyes, and small delicate bones, who had to remind one of a panther’ (quoted in Wayne Andrews, The Surrealist Parade, New York, 1990, p. 76). The Eluards visited Ernst again the following year and when they returned to Paris, Max followed them to Paris and the three of them moved in together beginning one of Surrealism’s most infamous relationships.
Throughout the years that followed, the figure of Gala pervaded Ernst’s work; she appears in the murals at their shared house in Eaubonne as well as drawings and paintings (fig. 1) and she continued to be a presence even as their relationship began to disintegrate. As Robert McNab notes, Ernst ‘remained under Gala’s spell for some time, despite himself, as his portraits of her reveal. The numerous frottages, oil paintings and drawings he made of Gala show him wrestling both with her hold on him and with his frustration with it’ (R. McNab, op. cit., p. 222). Painted in 1926, Portrait de Gala belongs among these works. Conceived on a large scale, it reveals Ernst’s new appreciation of texture – following his pioneering development of frottage in 1925 – with the paint applied and then rubbed or scored through as though in a peak of emotion. Gala is presented as a queen on her throne, distant, powerful and with a terrible beauty. McNab discusses the painting in the context of series of depictions of Gala which Ernst collectively called Eve, la seule qui nous reste, writing: ‘A majestic portrait of her, with tentacular arms, seated as if on a throne, with her face as dark as night, its features reduced to white eyebrows rearing in anger, confirms that Eve is indeed Gala […]. Why Eve? If his affair with Gala had gone sour, the Eve pictures were Ernst’s way of reminding himself that love endured. The love of Adam for Eve, of man for woman, is a timeless, species-defining urge that for a season had been incarnated for him in Gala’ (ibid., p. 222).
The present work remained closely tied to the relationship between Ernst and the Eluards. In 1948 Paul Eluard published Voir, a collection that includes poems dedicated to more than twenty artists, including Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Joan Miró. The majority of these artists collaborated with Eluard, providing images as illustrations. It is intriguing that of all the available paintings, Ernst chose the present work to accompany 'his' poem; perhaps a testament to the central importance of Gala as an inspirational figure in their lives.
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