Lot 48
  • 48

Max Ernst

5,000,000 - 7,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Max Ernst
  • La Conversion du feu 
  • Signed Max Ernst (lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 15 by 21 1/2 in.
  • 38 by 54.6 cm


Erik Oleson, Copenhagen (sold: Bruun Rasmussen, Copenhagen, March 29, 2004, lot 14)

Private Collection (acquired at the above sale and sold: Christie's, London, February 4, 2008, lot 172)

Acquired at the above sale 


Oslo, Kunstnerforbundet, International nutidskunst, Konstruktivisme, Neoplasticisme, Abstrakte kunst, Surrealisme, 1938, no. 20, illustrated in the catalogue 


Albert Skira, ed., Minotaur, Paris, Winter 1937, no. 10, illustrated p. 18 

Werner Spies, Max Ernst Oeuvre-Katalog, 1929-1938, Cologne, 1979, no. 2272, illustrated p. 372 

Catalogue Note

In the late 1930s, as the Civil War divided Spain and the rest of Europe contemplated the growing threat of Fascism, Ernst responded with a series of paintings that are among his most visually striking and historically significant. Depicting ancient, ruined civilizations, vast swathes of jungle and giant mythical or allegorical creatures, these works represent a unique engagement with the events that were unfolding across Europe. Painted in 1937, La Conversion du feu is rare in combining all these elements, including the mysterious figure of L’Ange du foyer (The Angel of Hearth and Home). Ernst wrote of his creation, "The Angel of Hearth and Home... is of course an ironic title for a kind of juggernaut which crushes and destroys all that comes in its path. That was my impression at the time of what would probably happen in the world, and I was right" (quoted in Max Ernst. A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1975, p. 51). The figure was the subject of three canvases of the same title in which the monumental figure of the angel is pursued by a smaller Boschian figure across a vast and empty plain. For a brief period these works also went under the title The Triumph of Surrealism in a darkly ironic reference to the failure of the Surrealist’s principles in the face of the rising strength of Fascism. These works – which as an embodiment of war offer a counterpoint to Picasso’s Guernica painted in the same year – are a remarkable expression of destructive power and menace.

Painted shortly before the works of the L’Ange du foyer series, La Conversion du feu – as its title suggests – marks the birth of this mythical creature. Ernst places the figure of the angel in an antediluvian landscape that recalls the verdant forests of his celebrated La Joie de vivre paintings and prefigures the aesthetic of decalcomania in early 1940s works such as L’Europe après la pluie. When the present work was published in Minotaure in 1937 it was illustrated alongside one of the La Joie de vivre paintings – in this case mistakenly titled L’Ange du foyer – emphasising the interconnectedness of Ernst’s works on this theme. Diane Waldman discusses the remarkable atmosphere that the artist invokes in these paintings, writing: "... a sense of dread, a sinister feeling of entrapment emanates from the lush vegetation of Ernst’s paintings of the late thirties and early forties [...]. The sinister looking foliage presses out towards the spectator, threatening him. The plane of the sky recedes, emphasizing the forward movement of the plant forms [...]. The vegetation seems alive; it crawls with strange monsters and reveals half-hidden faces. There is a frightening confusion between plant and animal life [...]. His forms recall nature but do not represent it, thus his art is neither realistic nor abstract, but emblematic" (D. Waldman, in ibid., pp. 52-53).

The unsettling sense of the vegetation coming alive – of plant and animal life becoming conflated – is emphasized by the artist’s use of grattage in the present work. Grattage was a development of the frottage technique that the artist had pioneered in the late 1920s; covering the canvas with a layer of paint, he then placed it over an object and scraped off the pigment to reveal the patterned surface beneath. Ernst was immediately aware that the spontaneous suggestiveness of these techniques responded directly to Surrealist theory, and the labyrinthine forests and strange creatures that populate works of this period always imply the depths of the subconscious. He often used objects from the natural world – wood, shells, and leaves – which imbue the foliage with a remarkable texture and richness, making the very paint appear to come alive. Ernst used this to particularly striking effect in La Conversion du feu where the monumental figure of the Angel and the small bird-like, reptilian creatures that surround it appear to be born from the undergrowth of his subconscious.

For an artist who was determinedly apolitical throughout his life, the paintings of the late 1930s and early 1940s represent a rare engagement with wider political events. In La Conversion de feu Ernst combines many of the most striking elements of this body of work with techniques and motifs that were central to his wider oeuvre, creating a response to contemporary events that is among the artist’s most powerful works.