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

Mer et soleil or Tremblement de terre

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Mer et soleil or Tremblement de terre
signed 'max ernst' (lower right)
oil on canvas
32 1/8 x 25 5/8 in. (81.5 x 65 cm.)
Painted in 1926
Galerie Van Leer, Paris.
Galerie Le Centaure, Brussels.
Fernand C. Graindorge, Liège.
Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, Brussels, by 1953.
Albert Lewin, New York, by 1958.
Cordier & Ekstrom, New York, by 1962.
Robert Fraser Gallery, London.
Karl Ströher, Darmstadt, by whom acquired from the above, in 1962, and thence by descent to the late owner.
P. Waldberg, Max Ernst, Paris, 1958, p. 247 (illustrated; dated '1927').
R. de le Roi, H. Bender & E. Trier, eds., Jahresring, Beiträge zur deutschen Literatur und Kunst der Gegenwart, Stuttgart, 1966/1967, p. 2 (illustrated).
G. Bott, ed., Bildnerische Ausdrucksformen: 1910-1960, Sammlung Karl Ströher im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, 1970, p. 48 (illustrated).
W. Spies & S. & G. Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1925-1929, Cologne, 1976, no. 1023, p. 120 (illustrated).
E. & G. Pohl & J.-K. Schmidt, Karl Ströher, Sammler und Sammlung, Ferpicloz, 1982, no. 141, p. 271 (illustrated p. 106; dated '1927').
K. Sauerländer, ed., Karl Ströher - Eine Sammlergeschichte, Frankfurt, 2005, p. 39 (illustrated in situ).
Brussels, Galerie Le Centaure, Max Ernst, May - June 1927, no. 35, p. 8.
Knokke-Le-Zoute, Albert Plage, Casino Municipal, Max Ernst, July - August 1953, no. 36, p. 19 (titled 'Marine').
Antwerp, Comité voor Artistiche Werking, De vier hoofdpunten van het Surrealisme, April 1956, no. 5, p. 7.
Wiesbaden, Nassauischer Kunstverein, Aus der Sammlung Ströher, May - June 1963, no. 68 (illustrated; dated '1927').
Darmstadt, Hessiches Landesmuseum, Die Sammlung Karl Ströher Darmstadt, Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, March - May 1965, no. 22, p. 21 (illustrated p. 41; dated '1927').
Lübeck, Overbeck-Gesellschaft, Kontraste vier Möglichkeiten des Künstlerischen: Josef Albers, Karel Appel, Max Ernst, Robert Rauschenberg, June - August 1966, no. 13 (illustrated; dated '1927').
Heidelberg, Kunstverein, Sammlung Karl Ströher, 1967, no. 24.
Munich, Galerie-Verein, Neue Pinakothek, Haus der Kunst, Sammlung Karl Ströher, June - August 1968, no. 49, p. 41 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Hamburg, Kunstverein, August - October 1968; Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, March - April 1969; and Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, May - June 1969.
Darmstadt, Hessischen Landesmuseum, on loan (1970-1980).
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Bathed in the strange light of the cosmic sun wheel at the centre of the composition, the enigmatic Mer et soleil belongs to a series of works that Max Ernst created in the late 1920s in which he explores spontaneous, unconscious painterly effects and techniques in the construction of his compositions. Less than a year earlier, in August of 1925, Ernst had reached a radical breakthrough in his artistic practice, developing the semi-automatic technique of frottage while on holiday in the seaside town of Pornic, on the Atlantic coast of France. Stuck in his hotel room one rainy afternoon, the artist became captivated by the rich and varied textures of the grooves in the wooden floorboards, their unique patterns of ripples and whorls evoking childhood memories of a wooden headboard that had suggested dreamlike images to his young mind as he drifted off to sleep. Laying sheets of paper at random across the floor, Ernst took pencil tracings of the wooden boards in his room, and in so doing created a series of unplanned images that fed his artistic imagination, their spontaneously generated marks becoming the foundation of his subsequent drawings.

Soon after, he sought to adapt this process to oil painting, filling his canvases with thin layers of pigment before laying them over a textured surface and scraping or scratching the paint away to reveal rich, multi-coloured patterns which both echo the material used in their creation and suggest entirely new forms. Referring to this unique approach as grattage (scraping in French), this technique would remain an integral aspect of Ernst’s creative process for decades, serving as the creative catalyst which allowed him to push past the fear he claimed to feel before the empty, blank surface of a page or canvas. Responding to the unexpected marks and shapes that emerged from the textured scrapings, Ernst worked back into the painting, creating fantastical forms and mysterious, otherworldly landscapes from the ethereal textures and patterns that had emerged spontaneously. As he later explained, these patterns offered endless stimulation: ‘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…’ (Ernst, quoted in Max Ernst: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1975, p. 38).

In Mer et soleil, the natural grain of the wooden board placed beneath the canvas adds long, sinuous curves to the lower portion of the composition, their rippling linear patterns and concentric circles suggesting the flow of waves or the tremors of an earthquake as it shakes a desert landscape. Indeed, in his use of rich, warm shades of orange in the foreground, Ernst subverts expectations conjured by the title, and transforms the ‘sea’ into a desolate, desert-like terrain. It is only through the scraping away of the paint that subtle hints of light blue are revealed to us, narrow lines of colour that suggest the watery depths that lie beneath the surface. The sharp horizon line, a typical feature of the artist’s landscapes from this period, is interrupted by a small undulation that rises up from rust-red ground, as if responding to the gravitational pull of the sun, its profile suggesting the crest of a wave as it reaches its peak before disappearing again. This small detail adds a sense of movement and dynamism to the rippling surface, whilst also lending the scene an unpredictability that feeds into the mysterious nature of the landscape, as if the waving lines may suddenly shift and dissipate before our very eyes.

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