Les invités du dimanche (The Sunday Guests) is a rare and important oil painting made by Max Ernst in 1924. It is one of a small number of highly important paintings made by Ernst between 1923 and 1925 in which the artist first attempted to move beyond the inspiration of the metaphysical paintings of Carrà and de Chirico and his own experimental work with collage, to create images based on the haunting logic of dreams.
In this respect of course, the paintings that Ernst began to make at this time articulate his close relationship and growing fascination with the burgeoning Surrealist movement whose membership he had painted in his large oil Rendezvous of Friends of 1922 and whose collective aims would be first published in the same year as the present painting in André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto.
Like several of Ernst’s paintings of this period, Les invités du dimanche is one that derives from the surprising juxtaposition of imagery caused by the technique of collage that Ernst had begun to practice during his Dada years in Cologne. In this case the strange imagery of three mysterious, faceless people originates in a small, earlier collage-painting of 1924 entitled Les visiteurs du dimanche (The Sunday Visitors). In this composite work Ernst had made use of a series of printed images of women’s hairstyles as the prompt for the creation of a sequence of bizarre and haunting figurative personages. These have been made in much the same way as his earlier 1920 work C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme (in which he used an illustrated sequence of gentlemen’s hats in a 'family tree' structure to generate new figures) or the 1923 painting Le couple in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam (in which he used lace and crochet patterns). As in these earlier paintings, it appears that the elaborate cut-out hairstyles from an old magazine have served as the original prompt from which the ensuing figures and their mystery has come into being. Ernst may have also been inspired here by the precedent of Carlo Carra’s La camera incantata - a work that appears to have prompted several of Ernst’s motifs and which prominently displayed an automaton-like dummy seemingly brought to life by its sporting of a detailed and elaborate hair-piece.
As André Breton wrote of Ernst’s work after seeing his first exhibition in Paris in 1921, what was most notable about the artists oeuvre of these early years was its ‘wonderful ability to reach, without leaving the field of our experience, two widely separated worlds, bring them together, and strike a spark from their conjunction’ (André Breton quoted in Werner Spies, Max Ernst: Collages London, 1988, p. 228). It was a poetic ability, derived initially from De Chirico and Carra’s example and also from his own hatred of all formalised logic, systematised order and authoritarian rationality - those pillars of sanity that had led to the madness of the First World War in which he had fought - which Ernst used partially as a nonsensical attack on such fixed notions of order. In a letter of this period Ernst wrote that it was his intention to always ‘create an electric or erotic tension between… elements that we have become accustomed to think of as mutually alien and unrelated. Discharges, high-tension currents would result. And the more unexpected the elements brought together, the more surprising to me was the spark of poetry that jumped the gap’ (Ernst quoted in W. Spies, Max Ernst: Collages, London, 1988, p. 228).
Inspired also by the kind of eroto-mechanics of Duchamp and Picabia’s machine pictures and deeply interested in alchemy and in alchemical illustration, with its potent mixture scientific apparatus and sexual metaphor, there is often a sexual or erotic undercurrent running through much of Ernst’s work of this period. With their faceless automaton-like forms seemingly suggestive of strangely regal or archetypal figures as well as of game pieces or the ‘malic moulds’ of Duchamp’s bachelors seeking the bride, the three figures in this painting also seem to convey a hidden and somewhat regal sense of play and meaning. This is an element of Ernst’s work that in this case may well also, like several other of his works from this period, have been expressive of the artist’s personal life at this time. The fact that throughout the early 1920s, after leaving his wife and moving to Paris, Ernst had been living with Paul and Gala Éluard and was deeply embroiled in a ménage à trois with them, may well also have played its part in the creation of this memorable image of a faceless woman and her two regal and mysterious companions.
Indeed, the year in which this picture was painted, 1924, was also the year in which Ernst’s three-way relationship came to a dramatic head. In the spring of 1924, Éluard suddenly, and without warning, ran off alone to Indo-China, leaving his job, wife, daughter, Ernst, and everything else behind him. Traumatised by his departure, Gala, along with Ernst, set off to Saigon to join him and to coax him home. After joining Éluard in Saigon, Gala and Éluard reunited as a couple while Ernst stayed on alone in French Indo-China for several months. In the autumn of 1924, he too returned to Paris. On his return Ernst launched into an almost neurotic routine of drawing Gala’s piercing stare repeatedly in hundreds of drawings and other images – a practice which, his later wife, Dorothea Tanning, described as a necessary process of ‘exorcism’ (Tanning, quoted in R. McNab, Ghost Ships. A Surreal Love Triangle, New Haven, 2004, p. 227).
On account of this personal drama, Ernst made comparatively few paintings in 1924. Of these, Les invités du dimanche is one of the most ambitious and complete images that Ernst was to produce during this turbulent period. It is not known whether the work was completed before or after Ernst’s return from Indo-China, but if the triumvirate of regal looking figures that it presents do relate to Ernst’s personal life, then this painting of an anonymous bride with her two attendant bachelors can only be seen as a timely commemoration of one of the great Surrealist love stories.