“When I come to a dead end in my paintings, which repeatedly happens, sculpture provides me with a way out. Because sculpture is even more like playing a game than painting is. In sculpture, both hands play a role, just as they do in love. It’s as though I were taking a vacation, to return to painting afterwards, refreshed” - Max Ernst
After having fled Europe for America at the outbreak of World War II, Ernst returned to France in 1953 with his fourth wife and fellow artist, Dorothea Tanning. He was welcomed upon his return with international acclaim as a master of modern art. In 1966, the year before he conceived La plus belle in stone, Ernst received the celebrated Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale. By 1967, the couple had settled in Huismes, in the serene countryside of the Loire Valley so that Ernst could pursue his artistic practice in relative privacy (fig. 1). It was in that pastoral location that, as Uwe Schneede states, the artist created works “filled with a fairytale atmosphere, witty, ironic and hinting at deeper implications” (The Essential Max Ernst, London, 1972, p. 195).
La plus belle is part of a group of nine monumental freestanding sculptures that Ernst conceived while in Huismes. It retains the whimsy and fantastical nature of his earlier Surrealist and Dadaist works. Although the echoes of his integral involvement in the development of both Dadaism and Surrealism resonate within these late works, the characteristic highly imaginative imagery and playful sensibility representative of the artist’s mature personal aesthetic transcends simple categorization. French writer Georges Bataille aptly describes Ernst as “the philosopher who plays,” as is evident in the friendly smile, off-set eyes, and twisted torso of La plus belle (quoted in op. cit., 2013, p. 295). Recalling the exhibition of the plaster version of this sculpture at Galerie Alexandre Iolas in Paris in 1968 (fig. 2), Mimi Johnson, Tanning’s niece, recollected the good-humored nature of her uncle which was visibly manifested in his sculptures: “I remember when ‘La Plus Belle’ was finished and delivered to the Iolas Gallery in Paris, and her neck was broken in transit…And Max just laughed” (quoted in H. Moss, “Max Ernst’s Surprisingly Constant Medium, Stone,” T Magazine, 21 October, 2015).
The distinctly feminine shape and graceful curvature of La plus belle, albeit abstracted and pared down, hints at it being an homage to Tanning. Fittingly, in 1961, Ernst described his relationship with sculpture in romantic terms: “[S]culpture originates in an embrace, two-handed, like love itself. It’s the most simple, the most primeval art” (quoted in A. Bosquet, “Sculptures de Max Ernst,” Max Ernst, Oeuvre sculpté, 1913-1961, exh. cat., Le Point Cardinal, Paris, 1961). The totemic quality of this anthropomorphic form, mask-like face, and overall resemblance to early Cycladic sculpture, illustrates the personal lexicon of imagery that Ernst had developed with a notable emphasis on the influences of primitive and tribal art. Regarding this influence, John Russell emphasizes: “Ernst was a pioneer collector of what was once called ‘primitive art’” (quoted in op. cit., 2013, pp. 206-207).
According to Jürgen Pech, other casts of La plus belle are included in the collection of the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl (this version is installed as a permanent loan at the Kreissparkasse Cologne), the Botero Museum in Bogotá and the Museum Scharf-Gerstenberg in Berlin, as well as in the collection of Ursula and Heiner Pietzsch in Berlin.
(fig. 1) The artist in his garden in Huismes in 1963.
(fig. 2) The plaster version of La plus belle installed at the Galerie Alexandre Iolas reflected in a window looking onto the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, January 1968.