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

Fleur coquille et tête d'animal sur fond rouge et noir

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Fleur coquille et tête d'animal sur fond rouge et noir
signed 'max ernst' (lower right)
oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm.)
Painted in 1928
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (no. 5503).
Arne Horlin Ekstrom, New York, by 1960.
Galerie Tarica, Paris, by whom acquired from the above circa 1970.
Hubertus Wald, Hamburg, by whom acquired from the above in October 1972.
Cahiers d'Art, ed., vol. 9-10, Paris, 1931, p. 417 (illustrated).
Cahiers d'Art, ed., Max Ernst, Oeuvres de 1919 à 1936, Paris, 1937, p. 65 (illustrated).
E. Petrová, Max Ernst, Prague, 1965, no. 37 (illustrated).
W.S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, New York, 1968, no. 167 (illustrated).
W. Spies, S. & G. Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1925-1929, Cologne, 1976, no. 1346, p. 285 (illustrated).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Max Ernst, March - May 1961, no. 54 (illustrated p. 35); this exhibition later travelled to Chicago, The Art Institute, June - July 1961.
London, The Tate Gallery, Max Ernst, September - October 1961, no. 92.
Cleveland, Museum of Art, Fifty Years of Modern Art, June - July 1966, no. 43 (illustrated).
New York, Byron Gallery, Max Ernst, October - December 1970, no. 9 (illustrated).
Munich, Haus der Kunst, Max Ernst Retrospektive, 1979, no. 182.
Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Sammlung Wald, September - November 2003.
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.


Painted in 1928, Fleur coquille et téte d'animal sur fond rouge et noir is a large 'shell/flower' painting in which Ernst presents in full glaring colour, a mysterious but also distinctly natural landscape of the kind that had distinguished his early frottage works from his series Histoire Naturelle. A colourful and also highly painterly combination of flat, abstract geometric form and grattage scrapings of paint used to form a strangely organic structure reminiscent of shells, flowers and geological rock formations, it is a work that invokes a strange abstract world full of biological possibility. With the mysterious addition of a bird-figure emerging amidst the red plane like archetypal glyph, here sign, cipher, abstract form and colour all merge to create a highly evocative landscape drawn from an otherworldly and seemingly nocturnal realm of imaginative possibility.

Produced by scraping the painted surface of the canvas with a palette knife to expose grains and patterns that, as in his earlier graphic frottage rubbings, subsequently served as prompts for his ever-fertile imagination and creativity, Ernst's 'shell/flower' paintings, are one of the first unconscious products of this new 'grattage' technique. The patterns these scraping produced, suggested strange clam-like flowers to Ernst who duly began to build his paintings around such potent and evocative pictorial flowerings. The overt prettiness of many of these shell/flowers, their deliberate and undeniable charm and the innate romanticism of the weird landscapes and gardens that they often generated in his art can also however, be seen as a reflection of the deep contentment in Ernst's personal life at this time.

In 1928, Ernst, who had only recently been able to devote himself full-time to his art, was finally settled into a new life with his second wife Marie-Berthe Aurenche. Ernst had met the young (in fact under-age) Marie-Berthe shortly after she had left her convent tuition the previous year and amidst great controversy and her parents outrage, carried her off to be his bride. He was of course supported in his actions by his Surrealist friends who were always ready to champion the cause of l'amour against the moral strictures of French society.

Ernst, whose art was often dark and foreboding in its visionary power, seemed as surprised as anyone in the new direction his art had suddenly taken in 1928. His Biographical Notes records for the year 1928 the following description: 'Flowers appear Shell flowers, feather flowers, crystal flowers, tube flowers, Medusa flowers. All of his friends were transformed into flowers. All flowers metamorphosed into birds, all birds into mountains, all mountains into stars. Every star became a house and every house a city' ('Biographical Notes: Tissue of Truth, Tissue of Lies' reproduced in Max Ernst, exh. cat., London, 1991, p. 303).

Invoking the same kind of innate romanticism and bizarre nature as can be witnessed in the work of painters such as Odilon Redon and James Ensor, in this work Ernst's central bloom of shell/flowers is accompanied by the cipher-like appearance of a bird-headed figure - an early incarnation of Loplop perhaps. Loplop was the mysterious bird-like creature that first emerged in a series of important and enigmatic works in the late 1920s. Usually male though sometimes also androgynous, Loplop was what Ernst later described simply as the 'Bird Superior, a private phantom very much attached and devoted to me' who was soon recognised by the artist as a kind of artistic alter-ego or mystic guide to the netherworld of his unconscious imagination' (Max Ernst, Cahiers d'Art, Max Ernst edition, Paris, 1937, p. 24). Here, part abstract sign seemingly inscribed into the geometric red landscape, part smiling presence within it, Loplop seems to assert his approval over the new mysterious flowering of form and colour in Ernst's art.