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

Un microbe vu à travers un tempérament

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Un microbe vu à travers un tempérament
signed and numbered 'max ernst V/VI' (on the front); stamped with foundry mark 'SUSSE FONDEUR . PARIS' (on the right side)
bronze with dark brown and black patina and iron chain
Height: 125 in. (317.5 cm.)
Conceived in 1964 and cast in the artist's lifetime in early 1976
Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels (by 1977).
Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne.
Danese Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, May 2000.
J. Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work, New York, 1967, pp. 206-207 and 348 (another cast illustrated, pl. 153).
A.G. Schlumberger, Les Treilles: Histoire naturelle et humaine d'un dessein, Fribourg, 1979, p. 241 (another cast illustrated).
J. auf der Lake, Skulpture von Max Ernst: Aesthetische Theorie und Praxis, New York, 1986, pp. 138-140 (another cast illustrated, fig. 35).
J. Pech, Max Ernst: Plastiche Werke, Cologne, 2005, pp. 172-175 (another cast illustrated in color, p. 175).
W. Spies, S. Metken, G. Metken and J. Pech, Max Ernst: Oeuvre-katalog, Werke 1964-1969, Cologne, 2007, p. 367, no. 4582,I (another cast illustrated).
Brussels, Galerie Isy Brachot, Max Ernst: Peintures, sculptures, collages, frottages, March-April 1977, p. 32, no. 26 (illustrated, p. 23).


Dr. Jürgen Pech has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

In 1955, the year after Ernst received the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale, he and his wife Dorothea Tanning purchased a farmhouse at Huismes in the Loire Valley, which would remain their home for the next decade. At Huismes, Ernst used agricultural debris that he scavenged from nearby farms to create a series of increasingly bold sculptural assemblages, which recall the celebrated bricolages that Picasso had produced at Vallauris earlier in the decade. Two ox yokes form the basis for Ernst's Etes-vous Niniche, for instance, while a wooden box for trimming asparagus is elaborated to produce Deux et deux font un (both 1955-1956). Jürgen Pech has written, "These objects are called into question and wrested from their everyday functionality. Their identity is annulled and expanded, their meaning transformed and poeticized. Like his work as a whole, Ernst's sculptures offer a view of a cosmos full of discovery" (Max Ernst: Retrospective, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2013, p. 296).

The present sculpture originated as an assemblage in 1964 and was first cast in bronze the same year. The central element of the composition is the wooden apparatus used to harness a horse or ox to a cart, the slightly bent shafts reaching upward to a height of almost twelve feet. The two cross-bars are inserted into a narrow, smoothly sawn board, which is fixed vertically into a wooden base. An iron wheel bearing is mounted to the upper end of the plank, and a pair of chains, joined together by a ring, hangs between the towering wagon-shafts. The forms combine to create the image of a stela-like creature, grand and austere, which transfixes the viewer with its round eyes and gaping mouth. The wagon-shafts read either as gigantic horns or excessively long extremities that the creature throws into the air, as if caught unaware. John Russell has written, "The piece...reminds us that Ernst was a pioneer collector of what was once called 'primitive art': this great gaunt horned figure could take its place in any anthology of tribal art and get by without showing its passport, but it has also--note the characteristic beaked head--elements from the repertory of Max Ernst's favorite images" (op. cit., pp. 206-207).

The title that Ernst gave to the sculpture--Microbe vu à travers un tempérament (A Microbe Seen Through A Temperament)--has a powerful resonance in the history of modern art. The poet Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, memorably referred to the movement as a "virgin microbe," likening its impact on the public to that of an infection, virulent and self-promoting (quoted in R. Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981, p. 251). In Sedona in 1946, Ernst began to produce minuscule gouaches known as Microbes, using the technique of decalcomania (applying pigment to one sheet and then pressing it against another), with its overtones of surrealist automatism. The resulting images evoke the vast canyons and rock formations of the Arizona landscape, compressed into tiny format. In 1953, Ernst compiled seven of these into a small book entitled Sept microbes vus à travers un tempérament, with each painting serving as the accompaniment to a poem. The latter part of the title is a reference to the celebrated phrase of Zola: "Une oeuvre d'art est un coin de la création vu à travers un tempérament". A corner of the creation, in other words--a mere part of nature, a microbe even--is sufficient to enable the artist to develop his own, internally consistent, autonomous realm of visual forms.

In the present sculpture, the paradoxically massive scale underscores the importance of the microbe in Ernst's artistic taxonomy. Pech has concluded, "Ernst submits objects from real life to his artistic temperament and they are transformed into an anthropomorphic configuration, like a gigantic microbe appearing under the magnifying glass of the artist's imagination. This sculpture embodies to perfection Ernst's method of seeing and interpreting the world--from microcosm to macrocosm, in turn--and posing questions about identity and the unity of opposites" (ibid., pp. 111-113).

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