‘As far as I’m concerned, I grant the painter the right to speak, to laugh, to take a stand and to draw upon all his hallucinatory faculties. But I absolutely refuse to live like a Tachist.’
(Ernst, quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat., Knokke, 1953, p. 30).
Painted in 1951, Don Juan et Faustroll is a large and important painting first - exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1954 where Max Ernst was awarded the Grand Prix for painting. The artist made shortly after returning to Arizona from his first visit to Europe since fleeing the Fascist Occupation in 1940. Rich in detail and in a variety of figurative and abstract painterly techniques, it is a work that both draws on the Native American–derived style of his years in Sedona, Arizona and one that anticipates the more mystical astronomy and alchemy-infused work that would characterise his ‘Maximiliana’ years after his eventual return to Europe in 1954.
In 1950, Ernst took his American wife Dorothea Tanning on their first voyage together to Europe, visiting specifically Paris, the South of France and Belgium where he had many friends and supporters. In this first visit to the continent since the war, Ernst was keen to re-establish contact with any old avant-garde friends and colleagues who had survived the conflict and to look into the possibility of making a permanent return. What he found was a Europe that was at turns, both unchanged and also unrecognisable. Ravaged by war and the enduring destruction and poverty that it had brought about, Ernst found Europe still in a state of disruption and trauma. In Paris especially, he felt that the mood had irrevocably changed. The charm and surprise of the Surrealist’s ‘chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella’ no longer seemed relevant in a world that had known more extreme and devastating absurdities during the last ten years. The prevailing aesthetic of the age was now the grim Existentialist vision of writers such as Sartre, Beckett and Camus and the art that seemed most relevant to the age was the Informel of Fautrier and Wols, the art brut of Dubuffet and the lonely, isolated figures of Giacometti. There seemed to be no place for the arcane mysteries of Ernst’s magical landscapes and figures, nor was there any practical possibility of he and Tanning being able to make a living in Europe at this time, so towards the end of 1950 the couple set sail back to America, Ernst feeling more like an exile than ever.
‘I came back to France, Ernst later recalled, ‘at a time when... the terribles simplificateurs were busy praising only abstract art and condemning Surrealist art, especially if it was at all figurative, as too literary, so that it appeared to be irretrievably discredited’ (Ernst, quoted in E. Roditi, More Dialogues on Art, Santa Barbara, 1984, p. 61). Painted soon after his return to Arizona, Don Juan et Faustroll is a defiant and absurdist mixture of abstraction and figuration that draws on one of Ernst’s core influences, the pataphysical imagination of Alfred Jarry. The title of the painting refers both to two of the most important European literary figures of the 19th Century, Don Juan and Faust, and also, in its the reference to ‘Faustroll’ to Jarry’s absurdist figure of Dr Faustroll. Drawn from the French Symbolist author’s novel Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll pataphysicien: Roman néo-scientifique suivi de Spéculations (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician). Dr Faustroll (an allusion to Dr Faustus as well as to Goethe’s Faust) was a comical and imaginary scientist. He was also a pataphysician and as the faust-troll, one of Jarry’s examples of antinomy. An antinomy, in pataphysics, is a self-contradicting entity and it is this, innate double-sidedness to things, that appears to be consistently expressed in Ernst’s Don Juan et Faustroll.
Everything about this picture appears to be split into two opposing halves. The painting itself is segregated into two distinct parts in the form of a division of heaven and earth in a manner common to much hermetic and alchemical illustration. In the top half, an abstract constellation of subtle and colourful form has been constructed from swirling spirals that sprout from the hands of one of two figures shown standing, almost underground, beneath in a semi-abstract-semi figurative realm. Here, amidst a rich, dark, prism-like world of reflected colour and light, two figures with mask-like faces made from geometric forms in the manner of Ernst’s more recent, Native American-inspired paintings appear to create the firework-like display above them. But while one figure appears to have the magic gift of fire in their fingers, the other fusses about keeping a sequence of candles alight, worriedly attempting to light one from the other. These two figures, arguably the Don Juan and Faustroll of the title, are, like their names, also opposites, one colourful and smiling, the other monochrome and sad-faced. In front of them, another figure emerges in another divided picture that, forming a picture-within-a-picture, appears to reinforce a pataphysical sense of the scene as a whole being a kaleidoscopic portrait with many layers open to multiple readings.
In Venice in 1954, where this painting was exhibited, Ernst was awarded its highest honour, the Grand Prix for painting, his friend Hans Arp won the same for sculpture and fellow Surrealist Joan Miró won the prize for drawing. This award gave Ernst the long-overdue international recognition he had always sought and with it, for the first time in his life, a degree of financial stability. After several years in the wilderness, he would now be able to make a life for himself in Europe. Having returned once again in 1953, he and Tanning now set about looking for a house in the Tourain. ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ Ernst said around this time, ‘I grant the painter the right to speak, to laugh, to take a stand and to draw upon all his hallucinatory faculties. But I absolutely refuse to live like a Tachist’ (Ernst, quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat., Knokke, 1953, p. 30).