La chute de l'ange (The Fall of an Angel) is one of a highly important series of paintings that Max Ernst made in a sudden and dramatic burst of creativity in 1923. Depicting a mysterious coupling of naked figures set against a seemingly dematerialising and convoluted construction of inanimate apparatus-like form, the painting presents a complex, mysterious and possibly sexual union. It is one of a number of major paintings made at this time, including Castor and Pollution, Of This Men Shall Know Nothing, La Belle Jardiniere, Piet or Revolution by Night, and The Couple, that, derive from Ernst's earlier experiments with collage and which play an intricate pictorial and intellectual game on the idea of the couple.
The year 1923 was one of great importance for Ernst. Having left his wife and son in Cologne to pursue his career in Paris where he struggled throughout much of 1922, in 1923 everything seemed suddenly to come together for him and as a consequence his art flourished. In his personal life he was extremely happy living in a ménage à trois with his friend the poet Paul Eluard and his wife Gala, and professionally too Ernst was making financial and critical progress after having worked closely throughout much of 1922 with Eluard on the books Les Malheurs des Immortals and Répétitions that they subsequently published together. As a painter, his work was radically progressing and was highly esteemed by André Breton and Louis Aragon with whom he was now pursuing a 'collective' vision and slowly gaining a reputation for himself
As Breton recalled of this magical period at the dawn of what together, one year later, they would announce as Surrealism, 'Aragon, Eluard, Ernst, Pret and myself', were a group whose cohesion and solidity had now been tried and proven. 'I think I can say that we put into practice the total collectivization of our ideas. Nothing was kept back from the others. Everyone gave what he had to give and waited to see what would come of it. Everything was shared equally amongst usIt was a great period, also, for games: writing games, talking games, games that we made up on the spot and immediately put into practice. Perhaps the games kept us from ever getting stale: certainly they heightened the feeling of mutual dependence which we then had. You would have to go back to the followers of St Simon to find anything comparable to it' (André Breton, 1952, quoted in J. Russell, Max Ernst, London, 1967, p. 69).
It was Ernst's earlier adoption of collage as a device that brought together surprising conjunctions of disparate form and imagery on a common plane of existence, that appears to have given birth to the strange new iconography that frequents Ernst's magnificent paintings of late 1922 and 1923. Foremost among this iconography is the image of the female nude contained, confined or cojoined into a range of strange encounters that in places seem to anticipate some of the scenes from Ernst's later collage novel La femme 100 têtes of 1929. As in La chute de l'ange, at the centre of most of these 1923 paintings is also a concept of twinning, doubling and of the coupling or conjunction of opposites. Using forms and images, often derived from magazines advertisements and other illustrations found more or less at random in the mass media, Ernst seems to have let his mind wander into new worlds created by these prompts, generating visions and hallucinations that he subsequently recorded in the traditional medium of oil paint on canvas.
Underlying these pictures is always a polarised sense of positive and negative forces somehow coming together. From the twins Castor and Pollux in their submarine and the strange sexual geometry of Of This Men Shall Know Nothing to the encased women's bodies of Long Live Love, Wavering Woman or Saint Cecilia, a pervasive sense of mysterious and even mystical sexual union remains current. Ernst is known to have been influenced by alchemy at this time and also, by the writings of Freud. Freud's concept of the double may indeed inform some of these works, while from alchemy, which Ernst admitted had determined the apparently sexual union of Of This Men Shall Know Nothing, it was likely to have been the concept of the coniucto-oppositorum (the conjunction of opposites) and the hieros gamos or mystical sacred wedding that intrigued him.
Symbolised by the marriage of a brother and sister pair - a king and a queen representing opposing elements, such as sulphur and mercury or in astrological terms the sun and the moon - these figures also represent a symbolic union between the earth and sky, the above and the below. It is this sort of union that is represented in Of This Men Shall Know Nothing and also perhaps in La chute de l'ange where a naked male and a female figure appear intertwined and floating in an ambiguous space as if meeting while one is ascending, the other descending.
The figures themselves derive, like so much in Ernst's art of this period, from the supposedly authoritarian language of illustration. In this case, from illustrated engravings of two 19th Century sculptures of the Greek poet Arion whose life was saved by dolphins, and of a nude female symbolising 'Somnolence', both of which were illustrated in Earl Shinn's book The Chefs -D'Oeuvre D'art of the International Exhibition, published in Philadelphia in 1878. In La chute de l'ange, Ernst has rotated and intertwined these forms, in the manner of collage, to the point where the female figure becomes, once again, a headless nude, or perhaps an inverted mermaid, for the dolphin, on which Arion is seated in the sculpture, is here rendered as if it belongs as the face of the woman's body. A seemingly convoluted and sculptural play of intertwined limbs floating in space, the sensual and sinuous forms of this elegantly rendered painting also appear to articulate a bizarre but not unhappy collision of polarities. Strangely sexual and also to some extent unnerving in the enigma it presents. La chute de l'ange is a sumptuous painting that subtly articulates the inherent mystery lying behind the apparent clarity and order of Classicism and its values so dangerously celebrated and adhered to throughout the 19th Century.