In 1938, Ernst separated from André Breton and the Surrealists - a group whose efforts took a decidedly political slant during the years leading up to World War II. Never satisfied with conventions or restrictive ultimatums, Ernst chose to develop his artistic concerns from an individual perspective. The works that he executed in the late 1930s and 1940s are revelatory in their power of expression and novelty of technique. Ernst completed The Endless Night at the creative height of this period, and the composition relies upon a novel sense of figuration. On a parallel with such masterpieces as Napoleon in the Wilderness from the collection of the The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Endless Night is a testament to the artist's visionary modernism.
Resonant in this painting is the dialogue between accidental abstraction and detailed naturalism - a tension that fascinated Ernst from his earliest moments as an artist. Ernst presents creatures that inhabit a richly-imagined landscape, leaving their full forms to the imagination of the viewer. Amid the textured explosions of color, Ernst incorporates recognizable figures ranging from avian to human. He envelops these figures in a mineral landscape of decalcomania. By the late 1930s, Ernst had fully developed this technique from his earlier innovations of frottage and grattage. Werner Spies describes decalcomania as a method, "which involves the spreading of paint on a sheet, laying a second sheet on top of the first, pressing it in places, and then lifting it up to leave suggestive images... in general the images are fluid. They represent no known world but rather seem to devour one another and evolve in an endless metamorphosis, evoking some vegetal or cosmic process..." (W. Spies, "Nightmare and Deliverance," in Max Ernst: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, pp. 13-14). This use of decalcomania within a semi-figurative landscape would reach its apotheosis in the masterful Europe After the Rain, which Ernst began in Europe and completed in 1942.
Ernst often culled from art history and literature, and it is plausible that the title of this work, one deliberately provided by the artist in English, was inspired by the poetry of William Blake. Scholars repeatedly find the artist turning to Blake's suggestive words and imagery in his work. The English poet's Auguries of Innocence from 1803 includes the following stanzas:
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.
Auguries of Innocence evokes a vision of evil and innocence engaged in open battle - one that Ernst surely could have equated to the political landscape of 1940s Europe. The serpentine tail that enters the landscape of The Endless Night echoes the potent imagery found in several of Blake's illustrations of the late eighteenth century.
In 1938, Ernst moved to St-Martin d'Ardèche in Southern France with his partner at the time, the painter Leonora Carrington. Werner Spies situated the landscape of the present work in the environs of that town when he wrote of this work in a letter to previous owners of the work: "The fragmented formations and colored stalactites in the foreground of the work refer to his discovery of the caves of the Ardèche valley. The vast, grandiose cathedral-like formations of the Aven d'Ornac cave transport us into a world of prehistoric limestone. More than simply a pictorial theme, his connection with the site became paramount. It was even assimilated to political circumstances that Max Ernst was first to describe in his work. In 1933, he produced a truly historical tableau of the times in Europe after the Rain, where the continent lost its contours and became liquefied. These were images of the end of the world, which in those declining years were captured by the artist's friend Levi-Strauss with, 'The world started without man and will finish without him.'
Spies continues, "The painting we have before our eyes resorts to a new technique, transference of an image, which was employed in the 1930's, symbolically expressing this decline. Porous and spongy forms were transferred to the canvas by way of tracing. This was truly an erotic method, a textural painting technique capable of producing a sensual effect. This process which was used by Victor Hugo was one of the indirect techniques applied since the 1920's and constantly developed by Ernst, master of the "beyond painting" movement. By a series of images with sharp and recognizable contours, the artist was able to create a ghostly world visible only to the interior eye.We have to project our own representations towards these images, with a challenge to proceed from the stance of a passive observer to the one of active exploration. Many things can then be discovered, as this world is not a closed one. Everything seems to be in a state of birth. The blend of prehistoric plant forms and archaic, frightening fauna urges us to discover new connections. The contrast between a dazzling blue sky and a semi-figurative world disappearing in the shadows rules out a stable and definitive fixing of the image....It demands an eternal stay in this 'Endless Night', between the eve, sleep and dreams; a journey throughout a fantastic landscape, with the eyes of the body closed and those of the soul open."
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