The cosmos had long been a source of inspiration for the Surrealists and for Ernst in particular: 'When you walk through the woods keeping your eyes fixed on the ground, you will doubtless discover many wonderful, miraculous things. But when you suddenly look upwards into the sky, you are overcome by the revelation of another, equally miraculous world. Over the past century the significance of suns, moons, constellations, nebulae, galaxies and all of outer space beyond the terrestrial zone has increasingly entered human consciousness, as it has taken root in my own work and will very probably remain there' (quoted in Werner Spies (ed.), Max Ernst: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 10). It was in the 1960s, however, when it took root more than ever before.
This was - in part at least - due to the dizzying advances being made in the USSR and America in what is known as the Space Race. The struggle for supremacy in space in the 1950s and 60s led to a quick succession of extraordinary accomplishments for man: in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the very first artificial satellite into Space; in 1961 Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin was the first person ever to journey into outer space and in 1969 the United States of America landed three astronauts on the moon. Ernst had lived in America during the 1940s, an experience which had given him particular insight into the nationalist culture and principles of the superpower. While space had always been a refuge for his fertile imagination as an artist and surrealist, in the 1960s it took on new relevance as a symbol of man's advancement in his heady pursuit of total sovereignty. Enfants jouant à l'astronaute, encapsulates the dual symbolism: reflecting the heroism associated with its practitioners - it was now that the purposeful child could first dream of becoming an astronaut - the present work also reduces man's naive rivalry to child's play.
Enfants jouant à l'astronaute is a remarkable work that reveals an artist looking back on his successes through the prism of a very particular contemporary environment. Its vibrant palette and stark arrangement of figures, evokes Ernst's landscape paintings, while the central element suggestive of a bird's head conjures the artist's avian alter-ego Loplop. However the deployment of these particular motifs is driven by a new cultural force and the symbols of Ernst's personal visual language take on new relevance. Ever a surrealist, Ernst gives expression to the unconscious.
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