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

Le soleil noir or Tremblement de terre

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Le soleil noir or Tremblement de terre
signed 'max ernst' (lower right)
oil and grattage on card laid down on canvas
17 7/8 x 23 1/2 in. (45.5 x 59.5 cm.)
Painted in 1925
Lady Norton, London, by 1956.
Robert Elkon Gallery, New York, by 1968.
Galerie Tarica, Paris.
Galleria dell'Ariete, Milan (no. 1643).
Galleria Galatea, Turin, by 1969.
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1969.
H. Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting, London, 1974, p. 122 (illustrated; dated '1927-1928').
W. Spies, S. Metken & G. Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1925-1929, Cologne, 1976, no. 983, p. 99 (illustrated; with incorrect measurements).
London, The Matthiesen Gallery, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by Max Ernst, November - December 1956, no. 10, p. 8 (dated 'circa 1926').
New York, Robert Elkon Gallery, New Acquisitions, September - October 1968, no. 13 (dated '1927-1928' and with incorrect measurements).
Turin, Galleria Galatea, Max Ernst, October - November 1969 (illustrated; dated '1927-1928' and with incorrect measurements).
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Le soleil noir or Tremblement de terre was executed in 1925, a pivotal year in Max Ernst’s career. Amidst a period of personal upheaval, financial anxiety and artistic uncertainty, in August of 1925, Ernst made a radical artistic breakthrough. Le soleil noir is one of the earliest examples of grattage, a process whereby a canvas is placed over a textured surface and then painted over with oil paint. Areas of the imprinted textured paint surface were then scraped or scratched away by the artist revealing different layers of textured paint. The forms and patterns obtained were next enhanced by Ernst to create a variety of diverse, unplanned images. In Le soleil noir the rhythmic, uniform lines of paint in the foreground were scratched into the still wet paint with an object such as a comb. Ernst then added certain compositional details with a brush; so creating an image that was spontaneous in its origin yet finished with the conscious decision of the artist.

Grattage was derived from Ernst’s initial discovery of frottage, which he had discovered on a rainy day on 10th August, 1925 while on holiday in Pornic, a seaside town on the west coast of France. While in his hotel room, Ernst was struck by the rich and varied texture of the grooves in the wooden floorboards of his hotel room. He took a rubbing of the surface and in so doing, created an unplanned, inadvertent image that amazed him, feeding his curiosity in the search for hallucinatory, automatic images.

These innovative, semiautomatic Surrealist techniques enabled Ernst to depict a whole new realm of unpremeditated images. Ernst recalled in 1936 the wealth of imagery that the technique of frottage engendered in his work: ‘There my eyes discovered human heads, animals, a battle that ended with a kiss (the bride of the wind), rocks, the sea and the rain, earthquakes, the sphinx in her stable, the little tables around the earth, the palette of Caesar, false positions, a shawl of frost flowers, the pampas...’ (M. Ernst, On Frottage, in H. B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1968, p. 429). Le soleil noir consists of a stylised sun composed of concentric discs of colour, while the curved, entangled lines in the foreground of the painting represent the shaking tremors of an earthquake. With bold colours and intricately textured forms, Le soleil noir masterfully exemplifies Ernst’s newfound joy in this innovative artistic technique.

Le soleil noir is one of a sequence of atmospheric grattage landscapes and seascapes that Ernst began in 1925. Throughout his career Ernst had a great sensibility for the landscape and this was evidenced in his frottage works begun in 1925. In a series of works on paper entitled Histoire Naturelle, Ernst created images of the natural world; water, plant formations and vegetation, as well as the depiction of natural phenomena. He also used frottage to create fantastical, expansive landscapes in which highly textured surfaces evoke a sense of natural terrain or relief, as well as, in some cases, the shaking tremors caused by earthquakes. These landscapes were developed into larger scale grattage works in oil paint, such as Le soleil noir, which enabled Ernst to revel in the expressive possibilities of colour in his compositions. The simplification of form and bold use of bright colour in Le soleil noir or Tremblement de terre create an image of dramatic force and visual potency; a joyous expression and embrace of a Surrealist technique that makes this work central to the development of Surrealism in the late 1920s.

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