"It is as a spectator that the author assists, indifferent or passionate, at the birth of his work and watches the phases of its development," Ernst wrote in his 1948 manifesto, "Beyond Painting." "The role of the painter is to pick out and project that which sees itself in him" (quoted in R. Storr, "Past Imperfect, Present Conditional," Max Ernst, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 54). The face that Ernst projects in Le chant de la grenouille (The song of the frog) is, as in two earlier versions, that of the romantic and visionary engineer of new forms, of life-forms tied, symbolically, to a civilization newly reborn after a half-century of war. The exuberant adolescence of this world stands in contrast to Ernst's other face of the later 1950s, the apocalyptic conscience of the atomic age grimly manifested in Le chant tordu de la terre and Le XXe siècle. Ernst's allegorical impulse is strongly, and eloquently two-sided in the series of neo-Symbolist landscapes he painted after the Second World War, to which these paintings belong. The dialectical tension between organic regeneration and entropic paralysis articulated here would become a recurrent theme in Ernst's later career.
Heavily encrusted in layers of paint yet seemingly illuminated from within, Le chant de la grenouille achieves a depth and complexity of surface that calls out, through relentless point and counterpoint, the burgeoning rhythms of the creature's song. Undulating surface volumes create a fluid, all-over environment--not unlike that of the Abstract Expressionists, on whom Ernst was a decisive influence--constantly oscillating between concave and convex in a perpetual re-enactment of creation. Its fantastic forms belong to a harsh vegetal or maritime world, recalling the forces of nature to a point of origin well before its matter crystallized into dense masses hewn from deposits of green and blue. The mystery of new life, and its rebirth out of the coagulations and dissolutions of earlier forms, is richly evoked through the green tendrils criss-crossing the textured under layers of paint, formed at random through the Surrealist technique of decalcomania.
The Surrealist legacy likely weighed on Ernst's mind in 1957, four years after his expulsion from the group following the 1954 Venice Biennale, at which he received the top prize for painting and new international recognition. Ernst returned to France, after fourteen years in the United States, just after completing Le chant de la grenouille. Surrealism had lost ground in post-war France, yet Ernst's independence from the group fostered new creative freedoms and a more subjective interpretation of painting "beyond painting." Though the "song of the frog" echoes the Surrealists' call to return to a deeply disillusioned world the promise and possibility of new life, the song is, ultimately, Ernst's own. It is the voice of an artist in dialogue with himself, confidently summoning the regenerative potential of nature out of its past ruins yet watchfully attuned to new predators within a matrix of emergent life.
In a statement published for his 1966 exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New York, on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, Ernst posed the questions, "Why do you sing? For whom do you sing?" His answers, given in parodic impersonation of different personalities, range from the "inevitable I SING THEREFORE I AM," to "I AM MY SONGS," to the nightingale's final reply, "ETERNAL LOVER, I LISTEN WHILE I SING, ALAS" (in Max Ernst: Sculpture and Recent Painting, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 1966, p. 9).
(fig. 1) Max Ernst, The Twentieth Century (Le XXe siècle), 1955. BARCODE 26007397.