'My wanderings, my unrest, my impatience, my doubts, my beliefs, my hallucinations, my loves, my outbursts of anger, my revolts, my contradictions, my refusals to submit to any discipline... have not created a climate favourable to the creation of a peaceful serene work. My work is like my conduct; not harmonious in the sense of the classical revolutionaries. Rebellious, heterogeneous, full of contradictions, it is unacceptable to the specialists - in art, in culture, in conduct, in logic, in morality. But it does have the ability to enchant my accomplices: the poets, the pataphysicians and a few illiterates' (M. Ernst, Die Naktheit der Frau ist weiser als die Lehre des Philosophen, Cologne, 1962, quoted in U. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst, London, 1972, p. 159)
Painted in 1937, La conversion du feu is one of the first of Ernst's paintings to relate to the disaster of the Spanish Civil War. Although Ernst was by no means a political man, remaining fiercely apolitical throughout his life, the increasingly disturbing turn of events in Spain throughout 1936 and 1937 found themselves becoming manifested in his art, as indeed they did in that of many artists of his generation. A grattage-based work, La conversion du feu marks the first appearance in Ernst's work of a figure that he would come to call L'Ange du foyer (The Angel of Hearth and Home) and which he recognized immediately as a terrifying spectre of death and destruction. 'One picture that I painted after the defeat (in 1937) of the Republicans in Spain' Ernst recalled, 'is the Angel of Hearth and Home. This is of course an ironic title for a kind of juggernaut which crushes and destroys all that comes in its path. That was my impression at the time of what would probably happen in the world, and I was right' (M. Ernst, quoted ibid., p. 154). L'Ange du foyer also went for a time under another ironic title that Ernst had given it, The Triumph of Surrealism. This title was given to the picture in mocking reference to the by now devoutly Communist Surrealist movement and its complete inability to halt the spectre of Fascism that was then rising all over Europe.
Painted shortly before the L'Ange du foyer - in which this spectre is outlined against a bleak and empty background and shown in an uncontrollable rage stamping furiously on anything it sees - La conversion du feu, as its title suggests, effectively outlines the birth of this monstrous creature from the dense forest of Ernst's unconscious imagination.
The painting draws on the technique of grattage, that Ernst had employed throughout much of the 1930s, and anticipates the developments his art would make using the more fluid technique of decalcomania over the next ten years. A semi-automatic technique, grattage served, like frottage before it, as a prompt, this time in colour, for Ernst's ever fertile imagination. The basis of the grattage technique is to prepare a canvas with a coloured ground and then work into this with other colours using a palette knife or scraper that smears and scrapes the paint off the surface, while sometimes pressing against the back of the support various objects with particular reliefs, thereby leaving a myriad of strange and randomly generated colourful patterns on the front. It is these that act as prompts, suggesting forms which Ernst then worked on, adding more paint to the surface in selected places only, until strange plants and creatures emerged from the surface of the painting almost unaided by conscious thought. In this way Ernst was able to both probe and give form to the imaginings of his unconscious mind.
Perhaps inspired by his visits to the jungles of Indonesia, throughout the mid-1930s, Ernst's use of grattage produced a prolonged series of jungle landscapes which, as trouble spread during the Spanish Civil War, came to reflect the critical political climate in Europe by growing increasingly dark and menacing. In 1935, the Horde had re-emerged in Ernst's work. These were a chthonic bunch of monsters rising from the mud - sometimes dubbed 'Barbarians' - who had first manifested themselves in Ernst's art in 1920s as a nightmarish aftershock of his experiences in the Great War. With the rise of the Hitler gang, these figures returned to haunt Ernst's imagination in the 1930s.
Alongside them, sinister birds and mantis-like creatures began to populate Ernst's radiant but increasingly thorny tropical forests. These were neither the romantic lovebirds who had foretold Ernst's affairs nor appearances by the artist's mystical alter-ego and spiritual guide to the unconscious, the birdman Loplop, but altogether more troubling, mysterious and threatening creatures of a kind not before seen in his work. Recalling the gothic flights of fancy that populated the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, at least two fantastical figures are seen to emerge from the undergrowth of the forest in La conversion du feu. Part ape, with lizard-like fins, the central figure is a muscular and seemingly tormented creature, that clearly anticipates the raging L'Ange du foyer. To the left another birdman-like creature is seen seemingly morphing into life from the branches of this fantastical forest. This figure too, more familiar within the canon of Ernst's images, seems to anticipate the smaller beaked figure that is shown attempting to restrain the raging dance of the L'Ange du foyer in the paintings that followed this work. Other monsters and animals appear elsewhere in the composition.
Together, these creatures form part of an ongoing narrative within Ernst's work, which, here, during this traumatic turning point in European history, also for a brief and rare moment in the story of Ernst's art relates closely to the external political climate. The personification of a pervasive and destructive force overtaking the European continent, they are, as Ernst bitterly asserted, simply, 'my impression at the time of what would probably happen in the world, and I was right.'