The hybridization of bestial and vegetal forms found in Les Asperges de la lune exemplifies a central principle of Surrealism—the juxtaposition of two contradictory states to jolt the viewer's consciousness. The life-sized, spindly “asparagus” stalks are personified at their peaks with playful, stylized “lunar” faces. In a technique that recalls his earlier Dada days, Ernst incorporated found objects into this work, namely the eyes of the figure on the right, which are composed of pebbles acquired from fellow artist Roland Penrose. Penrose recalled Ernst’s immediate fascination with the pebbles when Penrose brought them back from a trip to Egypt, "Polished by the sand, spherical in shape like a cherry stone, it was encircled by horns like the crescent of the new moon. On my return to Paris Max Ernst seized upon it as a surrealist object of significance and putting it in a plush jeweler's box he kept it beside him or exhibited it as a rare treasure trove among his paintings" (quoted in Max Ernst Sculpture—Sculpture (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 67).
The present work also contains a subtext of erotic symbolism which characterized the Surrealists’ Freudian interest in the subconscious. Heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic scholarship of the early twentieth century, Surrealists believed that art ought to be liberated from the conscious human mind and detached from reason, logic and rigid social conventions and norms. Sigmund Freud, in particular, wrote extensively on the innate sexual energy possessed by all human beings and the suppression of libido in the human subconscious. In this sculpture, the phallic forms of the stalks, the breast-like forms of the eyes of the right-hand figure and the vaginal shape of the face of the left-hand figure can all be interpreted as anatomical allusions in an erotic Surrealist vocabulary.
In addition to the influence of new research in psychiatry, the influx of iconographically imaginative works of art from remote indigenous cultures of Oceania into the Parisian artistic avant-garde during the twenties and thirties also served as sources of inspiration for Ernst. Carved out of natural materials and often employed in deeply spiritual ceremonies within their native contexts, these Oceanic objects possessed an aura of mystique that spoke to Surrealist sensibilities. Les Asperges de la lune bears a striking formal affinity to a sculpture depicting a pair of human figures rising out of the same base from the mystical Lake Sentani region, situated on the north coast of the island of New Guinea (see fig. 3). Now in the collection of National Gallery of Australia, the Lake Sentani double figure—nicknamed Le Lys—originally sat on top of a house post that supported a wooden dwelling that jut into the lake. Surrealist poet Jacques Viot brought back Le Lys, along with many other related sculptures during his trip to the Lake Sentani region in 1929. As Viot acted as a dealer for Ernst, it is highly likely that the Ernst would have seen the sculpture himself and been directly inspired by it. Le Lys' Surrealist appeal also prompted Man Ray to make several photographs of it and the sculpture eventually entered Jacob Epstein's prodigious African and Oceanic collection.
Cast in bronze in an edition of 8 decades after its conception, Les Asperges de la lune is a fantastical sculptural tour-de-force and one of the earliest examples of Surrealism manifested in the round. Ernst, who was one of few Surrealists to embrace the sculptural medium (see fig. 4), successfully transposes the movement’s desire to shock the viewer, defy logic and embrace the absurd, all with the quintessentially Surrealist sense of humor that defines his oeuvre.
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