Comprising of a red field of textured paint shimmering with an apparently mystic light radiating around a central mandala-like vortex, Ohne titel is one of an increasing number of Ernst’s paintings from the early 1960s to invoke a mystical sense of cosmology.
As a prominent Dada and then Surrealist artist, and then one of the few artists of those movements to continue his prolific art production throughout the 1940s to 1960s, Ernst’s early work often exhibits a stunning foresight for artistic development only matched by the winsome rehabilitation of themes and processes that would characterize his later work. As Werner Spies has observed, “...it should be noted that already in his Dada years in Cologne, Ernst was making paintings, drawings, and collages that foretold Surrealist concerns in their depiction of the world of the subconscious” (“Nightmare and Deliverance,” Max Ernst, A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 4).
Ernst fled Europe during the Second World War, settling in Sedona, Arizona, with the artist Dorothea Tanning for nearly ten years. Upon his return to France in 1953, his paintings developed a particularly dreamlike aura that was marked by a poetic and symbolic vision in the tradition of German Romanticism. The present work invokes a mystical sense of cosmology, combining fantasy and poetry in a composition that functions as an autonomous solar system.
Although he was never an abstract artist, Ernst had throughout the 1950s embraced a certain degree of abstraction and displayed an understanding of its principles in his work. In conjunction with this tendency and perhaps also as a response to the new satellites and the beginning of the space age at this time, Ernst began to paint pictures of the earth and the heavens, inventing new cosmologies for himself and even in 1964 publishing his most beautiful book, Maximiliana or The Illegal Practice of Astronomy. With its secret writing and its otherworldly paintings of an unknown cosmos it was a work that paid tribute to the amateur astronomer and lithographer Wilhelm Tempel (1821-1889), who in 1861 had discovered the ‘planet’ (actually an asteroid) Maximiliana, - the name of which held obvious associations for Max Ernst.
Looking like a bizarre and mysterious planet or cosmic flower propagating its seed in a strange galaxy, Ohne titel is a work that blends this cosmological interest with a deep sense of mysticism. Like the title of another painting from this period, Marriage of Heaven and Earth of 1962 for example, which invokes a hermetic understanding of the cosmos as a mystical union between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the rich red and yellow coloring evoke a mystical cosmic vision. With its stained-glass-like mandala representing the sun or other heavenly body and flora suggesting the terranean, this nearabstract painting is a richly Romantic landscape of fantasy - an extension of Ernst’s Surrealism into the microcosmic/ macrocosmic realm of Buddhist enlightenment and modern astrophysics.
In the early 1960s Max Ernst was being feted and celebrated with major retrospective exhibitions of his work on both sides of the Atlantic. He had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961 and a major show of new works at the Alexandre Iolas Gallery in the spring of 1962. This year also saw a major travelling retrospective exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne and at the Kunsthaus Zurich. Ernst’s response, as he wrote in his biographical notes for 1962, was to state that he "would rather have a single wild strawberry than all the laurels in the world."
Ernst remained fascinated with a basic state of nature as both a paradise lost and a symbolic map to the terra incognita of the human mind. He wrote: “The world throws off its cloak of darkness, it offers to our horrified and enchanted eyes the dramatic spectacle of its nudity, and we mortals have no choice but to cast off our blindness and greet the rising suns, moons and sea levels”(quoted in Histoire naturelle, Cologne, 1965).