Ernst was fascinated by the rich texture of wood, and 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, and with a few strokes added by hand he would arrive at fantastic, unexpected compositions. This practice developed into his utilization of the frottage technique. Ernst described his account of the techniques’ inception, “on August 10th, 1925, I was seized with an unbearable visual need to discover the technical means whereby this theory of Leonardo’s is clearly worked out in his practice. It began with…a childhood memory, the course of which an imitations mahogany board in my bed plated the part of the optical provocateur in a daydream. On a rainy evening I found myself in a hotel on the French coast when I was gripped by an obsession that made me stare excitedly at the floorboards. I decided to yield to the symbolism of this obsession. To sustain my potential for meditation and hallucination, I made a series of sketches on the floorboards by arbitrarily placing a few sheets of paper on them and then began to rub on them with a black pencil. When I closely scrutinized the sketches thus made-‘the dark areas and others, delicately lit half-dark areas’—I was amazed at the sudden intensification of my visionary capabilities and the hallucinatory result of the contrasting pictures” (quoted in Werner Spies, Max Ernst Frottages, New York, 1986, p. 7).
This early treatment of wood evokes Ernst’s childhood in Brühl near the expansive Kottenforst while expressing an affinity for the German Romantics. In 1956 Ernst’s biographer Patrick Waldberg first argued that the artist’s link with his predecessors was not so much in the actual work as it was in his attitude to life and the problems of creativity. In her essay Max Ernst and Romanticism Karin von Maur observed how “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 (see fig. 1), 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” (Karin von Maur in Max Ernst: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Tate, London, 1991, pp. 342-43).
Ernst’s frottage practice developed into his discovery of grattage. Using the same formal principles, Ernst created the grattage technique utilizing oil and canvas. Spies explains, “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. Spies further elucidates how Ernst would lay “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” (Werner Spies, Max Ernst: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 148).
Through this automatic creation, Ernst highlights the visual possibilities of happenstance by connecting the accidental with conscious decision making; a practice shared with Joan Miró (see fig. 2), Jean Arp, André Masson and perhaps most notably his collaborator the poet Paul Éluard. While Amour violent is an important formal example of grattage, the present work has been identified critically as a multifaceted psychological self-portrait expressing Ernst’s unrequited and confounding love for Gala Éluard, the wife of Paul Éluard at the time of this work’s execution, as well as the future wife and lifelong muse of Salvador Dalí.
Ernst was introduced to Gala and Éluard in 1921 at an exhibition of his work organized by André Breton. They quickly became inseparable, travelling to the Alps, Germany, an even Saigon together (see fig. 3). Living in a strange ménage à trois from 1921-24 which was never completely realized nor completely equitable, the end of the arrangement left Ernst alone, heartbroken and lacking inspiration. It was his discovery of grattage which ingeniously propelled his practice following this period of change. In 1926, Ernst painted The Virgin Mary Spanking the Infant Jesus in Front of Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and Max Ernst (see fig. 4). Ernst voyeuristically portrays himself along with Éluard and Breton as taking pleasure from watching a young Virgin Mary, reminiscent of Gala Éluard who was herself a young mother to Cécile Éluard at the time, engaged in a violently taboo and vaguely erotic act.
His obsession with Gala compelled his grattages as a means to deal with his infatuation after the relationship’s resolution. In his book Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle which explores the complexities of the relationship between Éluard, Gala, and Ernst, Robert McNab notes that 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 with both her hold on him and his frustration with it” (Robert McNab, Ghost Ships: A
Surrealist Love Triangle, Connecticut, 2004, p. 222). Yet it is the inclusion of the single pink rose which makes the present work a veritable Dadaist masterpiece: acting as symbol of a crushing adoration adjacent to a phrase which poetically negates the absurdity of love. Ernst would recover and go on to have many amorous relationships, most famously his marriage to the bohemian billionaire Peggy Guggenheim and the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington before his thirty-year marriage to the artist Dorothea Tanning.
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