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Details & Cataloguing

Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale

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Max Ernst
1891 - 1976
SUSANNA UND DIE ALTEN (SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS)
signed Max Ernst (lower right); signed Max Ernst, dated Paris 1953 and inscribed Susanna und die Alten; Suzanne et les Vieillards on the reverse
oil on canvas
35.8 by 50.5cm., 14 1/8 by 19 7/8 in.
Painted in 1953.
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Provenance

Galerie Der Spiegel, Cologne
Galerie Stangl, Munich
Karl Ströher, Darmstadt (acquired in 1961)
Dr. Erika Pohl-Ströher, Switzerland (by descent from the above in 1977)
Thence by descent to the present owner in 2016

Exhibited

Cologne, Galerie Der Spiegel, Max Ernst, Bilder 1953, 1953, no. 11, illustrated in the catalogue
Frankfurt am Main, Haus des deutschen Kunsthandwerks, 4. Ausstellung, Deutscher Künstlerbund, 1954, no. 53, illustrated in the catalogue
Cologne, Galerie Der Spiegel, Max Ernst, Bilder von 1925 - 1957, 1957, no. 8

Literature

Anton Henze, Das christliche Thema in der modernen Malerei, Heidelberg, 1965, illustrated p. 122
John Russell, Max Ernst, Leben und Werk, Cologne, 1966, no. 99, illustrated p. 148
Erika Pohl, Ursula Ströher & Gerhard Pohl (ed.), Karl Ströher, Sammler und Sammlung, Stuttgart, 1982, no. 142, illustrated p. 107
Werner Spies, Sigrid & Günter Metken and Jürgen Pech, Max Ernst, Werke 1939-1953, Cologne, 1987, vol. IV, no. 3031, illustrated p. 366

Catalogue Note

A subject previously painted by the Old Masters, including Tintoretto, Artemisia Gentileschi and Rembrandt van Rijn, Max Ernst’s Susanna and the Elders is radical in its abstracted, surrealist reworking of a traditional Biblical subject matter. The story, taken from the Book of Daniel, tells of a young wife who is being spied upon whilst bathing. When wrongfully accused of promiscuity and facing a death sentence, Daniel intervenes to cross-examine Susanna’s accusers and untangle their lies. Ernst skilfully captures the scene in which Susanna stands nude before the elders’ prying eyes. The soft lines emphasise the feminine curves of Susanna’s body and in the omission of facial expressions Ernst conjures a sense of unease and foreboding, through light and darkness, greater than any caught in more realist interpretations.

 

A prominent member of the German avant-garde, Max Ernst was a pioneer of the Surrealist and Dada movements seeking to explore the unconscious through the dream-like imagery that saturates his artwork. In the present work Ernst employs his unique technique of grattage, a method he developed following his discovery of frottage in 1925. The method of grattage involves preparing a canvas with layers of paint before laying it over a textured object, which is then scraped over. Ernst conveys his interpretation of Susanna’s story through the natural lines and markings in the wood and by use of a bold and haunting red. The patterns create an unsettling and ambiguous backdrop against which the figures have been placed. The texture of the wood forms a web across the canvas exacerbating the narrative’s sense of entanglement and claustrophobia almost depicting forest - a theme evocative of Ernst's work. As the gazes of the elders ensnare Susanna, so too does Ernst’s painting captivate those who look upon it.  

The figure of Susanna is central to the composition; she does not hide in the shadows but stands out against the dark background. The blistering use of red invokes themes of forbidden lust and voyeurism whilst concurrently prophesying the story’s violent conclusion.  Colour is employed in Ernst’s work atmospherically to create a dramatic and expressive sense of menace. In dealing with such a well-known topic Ernst can eschew didacticism and focus upon creating a psychosocially harrowing, and thought-provoking retelling of the story.

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