Finding that sculpture served as a logical extension of his interest in materiality and physicality from flat planes to the round, Ernst quickly embraced this new outlet of his imagination and creativity. While Ernst today is recognized primarily for his contributions to Dada and Surrealism as a collagist and painter, sculpture served an important role in clarifying and stimulating his own creative process. As he explained in his own terms, “when I come to a dead end in my paintings, which repeatedly happens, sculpture provides me with a way out. Because sculpture is even more like playing a game than painting is. In sculpture, both hands play a role, just as they do in love. It’s as though I were taking a vacation, to return to painting afterwards, refreshed” (quoted in Werner Spies, Max Ernst, A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 252).
Ernst continued to sculpt during his exile in the United States, producing some of his most iconic works during his time in Sedona, Arizona and in Great River, Long Island. He spent nearly a decade in America, eventually returning to France permanently in 1953. During the summer of 1950 however, Ernst briefly set foot back in Paris for the first time since he fled the city with Peggy Guggenheim in 1941. An incarnate harbinger of Ernst's return from exile, the playful La Parisienne was probably inspired by his experimental sojourn in the post-war city, as it conveys a subdued wistfulness for cosmopolitan Paris and the beautiful women that inhabited it. The litheness of the body, anchored in strong hips, is echoed in an elongated neck that supports a proudly cocked head, reminiscent of a young woman in traditional bonnet. While Paris was in the forefront of Ernst’s mind, the totemic quality of this work also correlates to his enduring interest in visual motifs of indigenous cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. As the scholar John Russell notes, “Ernst was a pioneer collector of what was once called ‘primitive art’” (John Russell, op. cit., pp. 206-07). Additionally, the present work is an early precursor to one of Ernst’s iconic vertical pole sculptures which would enrich his oeuvre throughout the 1960s (see fig. 2).
The form of this sculpture is distinctly feminine, evocative of both fertility figures from antiquity and totemic objects of Native American cultures (see fig. 3). These objects possessed deeply spiritual and even sacred meaning in the cultural context of their creation, and through allusion to their objective form, Ernst challenges the viewer to ponder the role of spirituality and profound layers of meaning in the modern world, embodied by the stylized outline of the modern Parisian woman. However, Ernst’s appropriation of ancient and non-Western cultures have also been interpreted as a purely aesthetic pursuit. As Diana Waldman comments, “Ernst’s sculpture occupies a unique place in the totality of his oeuvre, for it does not reflect the concerns of Surrealism… Although Ernst alone among the Surrealist painters was able to create sculpture, it was not Surrealist sculpture. Instead, it reflects Ernst’s awareness of primitive art… Ernst exploits the primitive forms of humor rather than their emotional power, which sets him apart from Giacometti, whose primitivistic work was full of drama and intensity" (quoted in Max Ernst Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2013).
The present work was acquired by Elspeth McConnell shortly after it was cast, and remained in her collection for half a century. Several other casts reside in renowned public collections, including at the Menil Collection in Houston and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian. Max Ernst himself kept the cast numbered 6/9, which now forms part of the Max Ernst Museum in Brül.
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