As the 1930s drew to a turbulent close, Max Ernst’s creativity continued to flourish unabated, even as the threat of war loomed menacingly on the horizon. In 1937 the artist’s work had been denounced in his homeland of Germany, confiscated from museums and labelled Entartete kunst by the National Socialists. When the conflict finally erupted less than two years later, he was living with his paramour Leonora Carrington in an old farmhouse in the small village of Saint-Martin-d'Ardêche in the South of France. As a German citizen, Ernst was considered an enemy alien by the local authorities and imprisoned in an internment camp, where he shared a room with his fellow Surrealist, Hans Bellmer. In the midst of this turmoil, Ernst continued to paint, inspired by the semi-automatic technique of decalcomania, which had been introduced to Surrealist circles by the Spanish artist Oscar Domínguez in 1936. It was at the very height of this period of upheaval and uncertainty that Les peupliers emerged, its fluid, rippling passages of paint revealing the manner in which decalcomania captured Ernst’s imagination, offering him a new, fertile means of artistic expression.
Decalcomania was not a completely new discovery that Domínguez could claim credit for inventing, but rather a technique which had simply been overlooked and forgotten for years – Victor Hugo is known to have adopted this transfer process in the mid-19th century to generate the imagery in his works on paper. The method is simple enough – using gouache or some other water-based medium, the artist spreads paint on a sheet of paper, then lays a second sheet on top of it, and after applying varying degrees of pressure, lifts the second sheet, which will bear the imprint of marbled, blotted, porous and grainy patterns of paint. The process can be repeated in subsequent layers of paint to create ever more intricate textures that resemble the appearance of organic matter and mineral forms. The use of decalcomania provided a welcome boost to surrealist practice at a time when inspiration and inventiveness within the visual side of the movement had been noticeably on the wane. André Breton advocated its use as a proper automatic approach to creativity, one that was not subject to conscious control, and he promoted the process as a bona fide surrealist alternative to Dalí’s use of quasi-academic trompe l'oeil techniques in rendering dream imagery in painting.
While many surrealists dabbled in the technique simply to marvel at the bizarrely evocative shapes they could quickly create by accident, Ernst was the only artist to adapt decalcomania in a sustained manner to painting in oils on canvas, incorporating panes of glass and specially modified pigments to generate the evocative patterns. Through concentrated practice, he became a master of the technique, achieving a remarkable degree of control over this fundamentally unpredictable process. However, Ernst rarely employed this technique as an end in itself, but rather used it as a systematic means of applying paint in conjunction with various kinds of brush work and the use of the palette knife. From the depths of these rich, variegated surface patterns, his vivid imagination conjured magical striations of form and colour, which he then built into towering trees and rock formations, eventually conjuring jungle-like landscapes, filled with menacing, mythical creatures and voracious vegetation from their forms.
In 1939, Ernst began to apply the decalcomania technique by degrees, beginning with tree forms (Spies, nos. 2330-2335), amongst which the artist identified cypresses (cyprés) and poplars (peupliers). Les peupliers is an exquisite example from this small group of arboreal subjects, its fluid passages of paint and subtly shifting tones capturing the visual dynamism of the technique. No other species of tree was perhaps so inextricably tied to the French identity as the poplar: svelte and elegant, they were a common feature within the French countryside, typically found lining the entrance routes to grand châteaux, or used along rural roads as windshields for tilled fields, while land owners around the country planted them as a form of fencing to demarcate property boundaries. While Ernst may have detected visual similarities between the towering forms of poplars and the impressions created by decalcomania in the present canvas, his choice of title suggests a more symbolic connection, particularly given the context in which it was created.
Following the French Revolution, the poplar had become a symbol of liberty, largely due to its name, and ceremonial plantings were common on important anniversaries. As such, the tree became an emblem of the stability, beauty and fecundity of rural France within the public imagination, characteristics to be celebrated and embraced as the country braced itself once more for war. Indeed, the wartime climate and the stress of the threat to his security must have helped to stimulate Ernst’s imagination, transforming the random, unmediated patterns into fantastical landscapes which boasted a strange blend of magic, mystery, beauty and foreboding in their forms. Discussing this aspect of Ernst’s artistic practice, John Russell has observed: ‘[Décalcomanie] would not suit every subject, but for a world in process of self-destruction it was exactly right… The very act of squashing an area of wet paint on the canvas corresponded to the panic and irreality … as for the act of pulling the picture round, and of making sense of a dramatic but as yet meaningless situation, that also met the needs of the moment … Chaos was subject once more to the artist’s will’ (Max Ernst: Life and Work, London, 1967, p. 126).