Max Ernst (1891-1976)
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Max Ernst (1891-1976)

Savage Moon

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Savage Moon
signed 'max ernst' (lower right)
oil on canvas
21 3/4 x 18 1/8 in. (55.2 x 46 cm.)
Painted in 1926
Private collection, Germany.
W. Spies, S. & G. Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1925-1929, Cologne, 1976, no. 1005, p. 111 (illustrated).
New York, D’Arcy Galleries, Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanter’s Domain, November 1960 - January 1961, no. 48 (illustrated p. 62).
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‘...In finding myself more and more engrossed in this activity (passivity) which later came to be called "critical paranoia" and in adapting to the technical means of painting (for example: the scraping of pigments upon a ground prepared in colours and placed on an uneven surface) the procedure of frottage which seems applicable at first only to drawing, and in striving more and more to restrain my own active participation in the unfolding of the picture and finally, by widening in this way the active part of the mind's hallucinatory faculties I came to assist as spectator at the birth of my works... A man of "ordinary constitution" (I employ here the words of Rimbaud), I have made myself see. I have seen. And I was surprised and enamoured of what I saw, wishing to identify myself with it... the field of vision and of action opened up by frottage is not limited by the capacity of the mind's faculties of irritability. It far surpasses the limits of artistic and poetic activity’ (Max Ernst, On Frottage, quoted in H. B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, CA, 1968, pp. 429-431).

Savage Moon is one of a groundbreaking series of moonlit landscape paintings that Max Ernst made in 1926. Depicting a mystic moon casting its ethereal light over the surface of the sea, it is one of the very first paintings that Ernst ever made using the new technique of grattage – a method of scraping random patterns in oil paint derived from frottage. As such, Savage Moon is part of an extensive group of landscape works all depicting suns and moons rising and falling over forests, seas, earthquakes and later petrified cities that emerged, unconsciously, from Ernst’s technical experiments with these new semi-automatic techniques between 1926 and 1927.

The basics of Ernst’s grattage technique grew out of his recent experiments with the graphic technique of frottage. Frottage was the rubbing of graphite over a sheet of paper laid over another variegated and undulating surface, such as a wooden floorboard, for example, so that the pattern of grain on the wood becomes graphically reproduced on the paper. The technique had provided Ernst with a sequence of random formal effects that stimulated mental pictures in his own mind, and which, in turn, became the prompts for the creation of a sequence of surprising mental landscapes. In early 1926 Ernst had tried to translate the frottage technique directly into painting but with less satisfactory results. Because the technique relied on rubbing, he was only able to use a thin wash of oil which resulted in denying him the use of rich, opaque colours. Grattage – a process of scraping away at the surface of a work to reveal the random patterns of rich colours underneath, effectively solved this problem for Ernst while providing the same exciting possibility of surprise and discovery that frottage gave him.

In Savage Moon, one of the first grattage paintings that Ernst ever made, he has taken a canvas and prepared it with a coloured ground. This ground has then been worked over with other colours to form the clear divide between black sea and light sky. Swathes of dark green have also been applied in places to suggest the surface of waves hitting the light. Into these, and while the paint is still partially wet, Ernst has scraped a sequence of paths across the surface using a metal comb that in regular places reveals the multi-coloured surface of the depths below. Out of the apparent geometric simplicity of the forms, therefore, a forest-like matrix of abstract pattern and colour has been created.

In this way, Ernst has also generated, with a bare a minimum of means and simple forms, an evocative landscape painting that appears to speak of a new world. Steeped in German Romantic tradition and the many Mondlandschaften (Moonlitlandscapes) of the Romantic era, Savage Moon is therefore a revelatory painting: a Surrealist take on an old format that promises new discoveries over new horizons.

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