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Max Ernst (1891-1976)
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Max Ernst (1891-1976)

Le Couple (L'Accolade)

Details
Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Le Couple (L'Accolade)
signed 'max ernst' (lower right)
oil on canvas
28 ¾ x 21 3/8 in. (73 x 54.4 cm.)
Painted in 1924.
Provenance
Paul Eluard, Paris.
Roland Penrose, London (acquired from the above, 27 June 1938).
Galerie Georges Moos, Geneva (by 1956).
Aram D. Mouradian, Paris.
Comte René Boël, Brussels.
Mme Jean (Margaret) Krebs, Brussels (by 1967).
Private collection, Europe; sale, Sotheby's, London, 8 December 1997, lot 20.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
P. Waldberg, Max Ernst, Paris, 1958, p. 40 (illustrated).
J. Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work, New York, 1967, p. 349, no. 23 (illustrated).
U.M. Schneede, Max Ernst, Stuttgart, 1972, p. 63, no. 108 (illustrated).
W. Spies, Max Ernst: Collagen, Inventar und Widerspruch, Cologne, 1974, p. 121 (dated 1923-1924).
De spectator, 1975, 5/11.
W. Spies, S. Metken and G. Metken, Max Ernst: Oeuvre-katalog, Werke, 1906-1925, Cologne, 1975, p. 345, no. 664 (illustrated).
R. Passeron, Phaidon Encyclopedia of Surrealism, New York, 1978, p. 161 (illustrated in color).
J.-C. Gateau, Paul Eluard et la peinture surréaliste (1910-1939), Geneva, 1982, p. 359, no. 45 (dated 1923).
R. Hoozee, Vlaams expressionisme in Europese Context, 1900-1930, Ghent, 1990, p. 355, no. 276 (illustrated).
G. Diehl, Max Ernst, New York, 1991, p. 12 (illustrated in color on the cover).
P. Gurdjian, Femmes, chefs-d'oeuvre, Paris, 1991.
W. Spies, Max Ernst: Rétrospective, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1991, p. 387, no. 80 (illustrated in color, p. 124).
E. Quinn, Max Ernst, Cologne, 1997, p. 122, no. 134 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
The London Gallery, Ltd., Max Ernst, December 1938-January 1939, p. 3, no. 15 (dated 1923).
San Francisco Museum of Art, 20th Century German Paintings, January 1940, no. 1038.
Kunsthalle Bern, Max Ernst, August-September 1956, no. 17 (dated 1923).
Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College Museum of Art, 1963 (on loan).
Brussels, Deutsche Bibliothek, Peinture allemande du vingtie'me sie'cle dans les collections prive´es en Belgique, November-December 1966, no. 24.
Humblebaek, Louisiana Museum and Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Six peintres surréalistes: Dalí, Delvaux, Ernst, Magritte, Miró, Tanguy, March-June 1967, nos. 17 and 28 (illustrated).
Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Max Ernst: Gemälde, Plastiken, Collagen, Frottagen, Bücher, January-March 1970, p. 147, no. 13 (illustrated, p. 98).
Bordeaux, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Surréalisme, May-September 1971, p. 61, no. 83 (illustrated, p. 60).
Munich, Haus der Kunst and Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs, Der Surrealismus, 1922-1942, March-September 1972, nos. 152 and 146 (illustrated).
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Paris, Grand Palais, Max Ernst: A Retrospective, February-August 1975, p. 113, no. 81 (illustrated) and p. 160, no. 108 (illustrated, p. 59).
Antwerp, Société B.P., Hommage au surréalisme, 1975, no. 25 (illustrated).
Stad Mechelen, Cultureel Centrum Burgemeester Antoon Spinoy, Kunst in Europa, 1920-1960, Een Confrontatie, September-November 1976, no. 54.
Munich, Haus der Kunst and Nationalgalerie Berlin, Max Ernst: Retrospektive, February-July 1979, p. 241, no. 79 (illustrated).
Kunsthalle Frankfurt and Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Kunstgebäude 100 Anniversaire, 1991, no. 13.
Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie and Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Max Ernst: A Retrospective, May-November 1991, p. 376, no. 80 (illustrated in color, p. 124).
Madrid, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, La juventud del genio, la pintura Europea: de Manet y Degas a Picasso y Bacon, November 1991-January 1992, p. 63 (illustrated in color, p. 62).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Houston, The Menil Collection and The Art Institute of Chicago, Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism, March-November 1993, pp. 158 and 372, no. 177 (illustrated in color, pl. 173; dated 1924-1925).
Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Les Tentations de Bosch ou l'Eternel retour, May-August 1994, p. 196, no. 49 (illustrated in color, p. 197).
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Sale Room Notice
Please note the amended provenance:
Paul Eluard, Paris.
Roland Penrose, London (acquired from the above, 27 June 1938).
Galerie Georges Moos, Geneva (by 1956).
Aram D. Mouradian, Paris.
Comte René Boël, Brussels.
Mme Jean (Margaret) Krebs, Brussels (by 1967).
Private collection, Europe; sale, Sotheby's, London, 8 December 1997, lot 20.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

Please note the additional literature reference:
J.-C. Gateau, Paul Eluard et la peinture surréaliste (1910-1939), Geneva, 1982, p. 359, no. 45 (dated 1923).

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Jussi Pylkkanen

Lot Essay

Painted in the same year as the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto, Le couple (L’accolade) is one of a major series of paintings made by Max Ernst that plays an intricate pictorial and intellectual game based around the imagery of the couple. Ernst had returned from the war disillusioned by the instrumental rationality that had culminated in the mass bloodshed and total destruction he had experienced first hand during his service. The ensuing idiom of anti-rationality that would come to characterize an oeuvre overwhelmingly critical of the traditional themes of Western culture would lead to a series of uncanny paintings made by Ernst between 1923 and 1924, which center around the imagery of the warped couple, and to which Le couple (L’accolade) belongs. These paintings reveal, in one way or another, a sense of strain, which doubtless corresponds to Ernst’s own complicated romantic life. In Long Live Love or Charming Countryside, 1923 (Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis), a couple seem to suffocate each other with the parasitic passion of their embrace, while the de Chirico-esque vocabulary of Two Girls in Beautiful Poses, 1924, shares its lyrical ambiguities with Le couple (L’accolade). Demonstrating an affinity with his earlier adoption of collage as a device that brought together surprising conjunctions of disparate imagery, Le couple (L’accolade) depicts an ambiguous figure, at once single and coupled, male and female, engaged in a disarming embrace. With its aura of disjunction the present work makes reference to Ernst’s earlier collage-like work, Le Couple, 1923 (Museum Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), while drawing on the painterly approach that heralded the textural quality of his ensuing experiments with frottage. Boasting an illustrious provenance, Le couple (L’accolade) was first owned by Ernst’s close friend and founding member of the Surrealist movement, Paul Eluard, before passing into the possession of Sir Roland Penrose, a key champion of Surrealism and connoisseur of the avant-garde.

The year 1924 was one of great importance for Ernst. Since 1923 he had lived in a peaceful, if unconventional, ménage a trois with the poet Paul Eluard, and his wife, Gala, in their house at Eaubonne where he had covered the walls in murals. Depicting a surreal, infested landscape this extraordinary document of their unusual arrangement was perhaps an omen of what was to come. Without warning, in March 1924 Eluard disappeared. Grief stricken at the revelation of Gala’s preference for Ernst over himself and unable to cope with the pain, Eluard fled. Presumed dead by his friends and family, Eluard eventually wrote to Gala from Saigon, where, in the summer of 1924 Ernst and Gala followed him, hoping to convince him to return to Paris. Successful in their mission, Gala and Eluard traveled back to Paris, while Ernst returned separately. Significantly, Eluard was the first owner of Le couple (L’accolade) which, with its disquieting subject matter and troubling, almost monstrous, representation of a couple, sheds light on the complexities of their domestic arrangement.

With its rich, deep color and steep angular perspective, alongside the mannequin-like figure and puzzling, almost sinister sense of enigma, Le couple (L’accolade) is a work that reflects the profound influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical painting upon Ernst. As Breton wrote of Ernst’s work after seeing his first exhibition in Paris in 1921, what was most notable about Ernst’s painting 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” (quoted in W. Spies, Max Ernst: Collages, London, 1988, p. 228). It was a poetic ability, derived from de Chirico’s example and also from his own hatred of all formalized logic, systematized 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. He recalled, “We young people came back from the war dazed and our disgust simply had to find an outlet. This quite naturally took the form of attacks on the foundations of the civilization that had brought this war about - attacks on language, syntax, logic, literature, painting and so forth” (M. Ernst, quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 82).

Reflecting the admiration of the Surrealist poets for de Chirico’s lyrical dream-imagery, in Le couple (L’accolade) Ernst depicts a Tiresian figure, part-human, part-machine. Painted in the trappings of 1920s fashion—a man’s dinner jacket and bow tie, a woman’s crimson cloche hat—the figure, or figures appear to be engaged in a hypnotic dance, at once a dancing couple and a single hermaphroditic presence. Juxtaposing apparently incompatible forces, here two magnified hands reach out to one another, comically long arms wrapped around empty space; almost touching, the hands seem about to make contact in the embrace to which the title alludes. Symbolic of the artist himself, these enhanced hands mark one of Ernst’s major preoccupations: the power of the draughtsman and the role of the artist as choreographer. Seen throughout his oeuvre, the hand, for Ernst represents the connection between thought and action: in Oedipus Rex, 1922, a vast male hand reaches through a window, holding between its fingertips a walnut pierced with a mechanical bow and arrow, while in At the First Clear Word, 1923 (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf), one of the murals taken from Eluard’s house at Eaubonne, a female hand delicately emerges from an opening in a wall balancing a ping pong ball between crossed fingers. In Le couple (L’accolade) we see a confluence of this distinctive iconography in the appearance of a third feminine hand emerging from beneath the almost interlocking fingers of the illusionistic male hands. Disrupting the cohesion of the image, this anterior hand is an indication, perhaps of the disorder into which his formerly peaceful ménage a trois had descended.

With its myriad references to the world of music it is perhaps fitting that the title of the work—L’accolade—can also refer to the brace that joins together musical staves. In Le couple (L’accolade) the curved arms mirror this symbol, the hands poised in applause, while the sinuous line of the jacket lapel might indicate a treble clef, and the striped cloth, perhaps, the measured lines of a score. In the face of the figure there is a hint of a stringed instrument, its neck made up of the wide mouth of a trumpet. Seen from this perspective, the figure in the painting represents conductor, dancer, audience and musician all at once, both leading and participating in an intricate narrative that mirrors the complexities of the artist’s life and mind. Influenced by the Surrealist poets, particularly Eluard, in Le couple (L’accolade) the viewer sees a formal consolidation of themes. Equally as inspired by the lyrical and metaphysical, as the eroto-mechanics of Duchamp and Picabia’s mechanical pictures, in Le couple (L’accolade) Ernst exhibits the effect of collage on the dreamscape of Surrealist painting.

On Ernst’s return to Paris from Saigon in the autumn of 1924, Breton fficially declared Surrealism a movement with the publication of his Surrealist Manifesto. Promoting a “pure psychic automatism,” Breton set out to define the principles of Surrealism. Inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious, the Surrealists used an irrational pictorial vocabulary that could adequately depict the deepest recesses of the subconscious. Like Dada, Surrealism was initially a purely literary movement and the first manifesto reflected this motion: all the named participants were poets and writers. Yet, two years previously Ernst had painted Au rendez-vous des amis (A Friends’ Reunion), 1922 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne), a document of the key figures in Surrealism both past and present; with this visual manifesto of Surrealism he pledged his allegiance to the movement long before it was officially recognized. Having abandoned his ties with Dada, with his relocation from Germany to Paris in 1922 Ernst had developed a reservoir of imagery that foreshadowed the language of Surrealism, revealing the ‘manifest dream content’ of which Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams and that the Surrealists sought to liberate. As Breton recalled of this magical period, “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” (quoted in J. Russell, Max Ernst, London, 1967, p. 69).

Yet, despite his close affiliation with the Surrealist movement, with his own personal brand of semi-automatism Ernst pursued a rational control over Breton’s automatic psychic associations. It was for this reason that after years of experimenting with various media Ernst returned to the traditional medium of oil on canvas. In Le couple (L’accolade) the viewer sees the synthesis of Ernst’s lyrical brushstrokes with the unpredictable juxtaposed elements of collage. Schneede writes, “The details of the works of this period may be realistic; but seen as a whole each of them contains many unexplained discontinuities… there is in many of the works of 1923-1924 the addition of fragments of bodies and objects, obscure in their appearance, which cannot be brought together into a decipherable unity. The collage-like use of juxtaposition is replaced in The Couple by an impulsive application of colour, a kind of painting which in its anatomical deformations ventures close to Expressionism. But the emotional identification between will and execution, the unreflective outpouring of art, does not interest Max Ernst” (U.M. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst, London 1972, p. 62).

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