Taking Flight: Max Ernst Birds on the Wire

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An exhibition of important works by Max Ernst is currently on display at Sotheby's in London, from 13 February—2 March. Bringing together paintings that have remained in private collections since they were created, these works offer a glimpse inside the mind of the master surrealist. The bird motif explored in these images played a central role throughout Ernst's career, as well as providing him with his alter-ego 'Loplop' — a character that was not only confined to his own paintings and writing, but also made appearances in the work of his contemporaries. Birds on the Wire: Max Ernst 1921–28 coincides with the Surrealist Art Evening Sale on 1 March, providing a rare opportunity to see works by Ernst alongside other icons of the movement such as Salvador Dalí, Rene Magritte and André Masson. 

Birds on the Wire: Max Ernst 1921–28
London | 13 February – 2 March 2017                                                                                              

Taking Flight: Max Ernst Birds on the Wire

  • Max Ernst, Petit monument aux oiseaux, 1927.
    This small grattage painting is related to a large number of works Ernst executed in the 1920s entitled Monument aux oiseaux. Some of these works showed conglomerate masses of birds flocked so tightly together that only individual beaks and beady eyes are discernible. In this more abstract rendering of the subject, the central motif is entirely monochrome and with little attempt made to distinguish its constituent parts, though bird-like features are perceivable.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Cage et oiseaux, 1924.
    Two caged birds painted on a small panel are set in Ernst's own arrangement of wires and wooden slats. Caged birds and other confined creatures featured regularly in Ernst's works of the 1920s, and in this work he has taken his interest to its most literal realisation. The artist closely identified with birds, and the resemblance in his alert and flighty manner was often remarked upon.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Les mains aux oiseaux, 1925.
    Three birds on a wire, the colourful one in the act of being removed by a pair of hands, are representative of the uncomfortable situation Max Ernst found himself in 1925. For three years Ernst had lived in a ménage à trois with the poet Paul Eluard and his wife Gala (later the wife of Salvador Dalí). In 1924, Ernst and Gala joined Eluard in Vietnam, where he had disappeared after a period of depression, but the poet remained unhappy and the trio decided to split, with Paul and his wife returning to France, and Max remaining in Asia until the end of the year.  



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, La belle jardinière, 1921-1922.
    Executed by Ernst in 1921, La Belle jardinière is an intriguing pen and ink rendition of an important Dada photo-montage he had created the same year and titled Santa Conversazione. Although he avoided using these photo-montages to comment on politics like many of his Dadaist colleagues, his quasi-mechanical figures have an unsettling quality designed to express a sense of the alienation he felt in the aftermath of the war.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Le chaste Joseph, 1928.
    La Chaste Joseph is one of Ernst’s largest and most powerful works from the 1920s. Preoccupied by fantastical images birds, brides, forests and flowers, Ernst rarely attempted to create works that overtly referenced religious or political themes. However in La Chaste Joseph, the two central avian figures represent the pregnant Virgin Mary and Joseph embracing while being watched over by the Holy Spirit. Ernst's title, inscribed in the lower left of the composition, wittily plays on the tradition of referring to Jesus's mother as the Virgin Mary. This dream-like vision, rendered in rich colours and featuring some elements of grattage, seems to embody the 'aggressiveness and exaltation' that Ernst felt was the essential quality of his art.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, L'éloge de la folie, 1924.
    L'éloge de la folie, painted in 1924, belongs to a series of object-paintings on the theme of imprisoned bird. With its extremely rich, almost ridged surface, this work marks another development in Ernst's painting technique. Using blunt object to repeatedly press on the drying paint layers, the resulting furrows and crevices create a decorative pattern across the surface. The two birds in these works are most often recognised as a pair of lovers either constrained by each other or set apart despite inhabiting the same cage, perhaps representing Max Ernst and his estranged wife or Paul and Gala Eluard with whom he lived in a menage à trois at the time.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Les éclairs au-dessous de quatorze ans, 1925.
    Les éclairs au-dessous de quatorze ans belongs to a series of ground breaking works on paper Ernst executed in 1925 entitled Historie Naturelle. Ernst discovered the technique revealed in the series while staying in a small hotel in Pornic on the Atlantic coast of France. Fascinated by the rich texture of the floorboards, he 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 to the artist, and with a few strokes added by hand he would arrive at fantastic, unexpected compositions such as Les éclairs au-dessous de quatorze ans.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Jeunes gens piétinant leur mère, 1927
    Disturbingly titled Jeunes gens piétinant leur mère or Young People Trampling Their Mother, this work belongs to a series of powerful canvases known collectively as Hordes. These bacchanalian compositions, filled with dancing figures seemingly metamorphosed from the woods themselves, are amongst the most important and technically innovative works of the late 1920s. Adapting the frottage 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.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Forêt-arêtes, 1927
    The image of a forest was one of the defining themes for Ernst throughout his career. The thick, ridged surface of Forêt-arêtes though highly abstracted, evokes the dense, dark woodland of the German countryside which was for Ernst a place of mystery and magic. Forêt-arêtes is presented in the artist's original frame which mimics the furrowed appearance of the work.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • Max Ernst, Fleurs Ecailles, 1928.
    In 1928 Ernst produced a number of curious 'still-lifes' that seem to represent flowers or shells on the ocean bed. Underwater life was of great interest to the Surrealists, including Tanguy, Arp and Miró, all of whom incorporated amoebic, coralline or crustacean forms in the works. Using his recently developed 'grattage' technique, these paintings also introduce an abstract element in his otherwise figurative output.



     



    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

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