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

Rien n'est incompréhensible

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Rien n'est incompréhensible
signed 'max ernst' (lower right)
oil on plaster mounted on canvas
16 7/8 x 46 1/2 in. (43 x 118 cm.)
Painted in 1923
Paul Eluard, Eaubonne, by whom commissioned from the artist in 1923.
Galerie André-François Petit, Paris.
Viktor & Marianne Langen, Meerbusch, by whom acquired in 1978 and thence by descent to the present owners.
P. Eluard, Anthologie des écrits sur l’art, Paris, 1972, no. 158, p. 238.
W. Spies, S. & G. Metken, Max Ernst. Oeuvre-Katalog: Werke 1906-1925, Cologne, 1975, no. 647, p. 336 (illustrated).
V. & M. Langen, Sammlung Viktor u. Marianne Langen. Kunst des 20ten Jahrhunderts, vol. I, Ascona, 1986, p. 137 (illustrated p. 138).
Paris, Galerie André-François Petit, Max Ernst. Peintures pour Paul Eluard, 1969, p. 37 (illustrated).
New York, Byron Gallery, The Surrealists, November - December 1969, no. 30, p. 71.
New York, Byron Gallery, Max Ernst Exhibition, November - December 1970, no. 3.
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Max Ernst: Sculptures, maisons, paysages, Spring 1998, no. 18 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, 1998 (illustrated).
Neuss, Langen Foundation, Bedürfnis Kunst. Einblicke in die Sammlung Viktor und Marianne Langen, 2007.
Neuss, Langen Foundation, Tradition und Moderne - Sammlung Viktor und Marianne Langen, 2008-2009.
Neuss, Langen Foundation, Hommage an Marianne Langen - Werke aus der Sammlung, 2011-2013.
Neuss, Langen Foundation, Hat der Surrealismus heute noch eine Bedeutung für Sie?, 2013-2014.
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Rien n’est incomprehensible (Nothing is incomprehensible) is one of the extraordinary frieze paintings Max Ernst painted for Gala and Paul Eluard while living with them in their house in Eaubonne in 1923. Depicting a strange hybrid creature with frog-like legs seemingly fleeing from a colourful urban-like construction, the painting is a fantastical work that, like the other friezes he made for the house, disrupts both the pictorial logic of landscape painting and natural history illustration with a joyous and playful sense of the absurd. Adopting an Hieronymous Bosch-like mix of recognizable forms, which Ernst has intermingled in a bizarre manner, the painting draws on the disassociation technique of his recent collages to present an image of a strange and startling new reality.

Now transferred onto canvas, Rien n’est incomprehensible was one of four frieze paintings that adorned the upper walls of the bedroom on the first floor of the house in which Cecile Eluard, Paul and Gala’s five year-old daughter, slept. Ernst’s purpose in creating these paintings was to deliberately - and in the context of Cecile’s bedroom, more playfully and humorously - undermine the conventions with which the world is both perceived and understood.

As a student, Ernst had once marked out a passage from Nietzche's Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft that exposed the artifice of such conventions. ‘What I can't bear is the fact that it is more important to know the name of things than to know the things themselves. The name of things, the reputation of things, their outward appearance, their place in the hierarchy, all these were due initially to error and caprice. They were like clothes that people threw on without caring whether they suited their natures or the colour of their skins. But eventually, as generation after generation came to accept them, the names came to be identified with the things that they had been applied to. They were those things in the end... And now it would be the wildest illusion to suppose that by showing how all this came about, we can destroy this so-called "real" world. To destroy it, we have to create another, an alternative world. But there is another thing that we must not forget: that if we create new names, formulate new entities and put forward new probabilities we shall also, in the long run, create new "things"’ (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in J. Russell, Max Ernst, London, 1967, pp. 50-51).

Through the pictorial language of collage Ernst had found not only a way to attack such conventions and hierarchies of a modern ‘civilization’, which he, like many other artists, blamed for the First World War, but also a means of creating a new and often disturbing reality that seemed to provoke and prick the conscience of modern man. With strange forms and creatures beginning to emerge in his work with increasing regularity, and speaking like hallucinations of a new world beyond the looking glass of crystallised reason and order, this practice led ultimately to Ernst’s own mock-pioneering work of ‘Natural History’ in 1925. Rien n’est incomprehensible is in many respects a precedent of Ernst’s later exploration of an entire pseudo-natural science, being one of the first of Ernst’s paintings to move beyond the disjunctive association of collage and to convert conventional pictorial traditions into a new and intriguing topography of the mind.

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