Painted in 1927, Cage, forêt, soleil noir is one of the great forest paintings that Max Ernst executed at the height of his involvement with the Surrealists. While the forest had initially emerged as a motif in Ernst’s paintings in 1925, it was not until two years later that he embarked on a sustained exploration of the subject, creating over 80 works on this theme in a variety of media. These compositions, many of which exploit the expressive potential of the artist’s newly developed technique of grattage, are characterised by seemingly impenetrable walls of trees, their forms overlapping and interlocking, hemming in the viewer and shutting out the world beyond. In the present composition, the trees are paired with a mysterious solar disk hovering in the sky above, its form hanging so low that it is almost swallowed up by the voracious, all-consuming forest, while a solitary small bird remains trapped in a cage amidst the foliage.
Having grown up on the edge of thick woodland in Brühle in the Rhineland, the forest was a particularly powerful image for Ernst, a labyrinthine arena of mystery, danger and possibility, that preyed on and haunted the recesses of his unconscious mind. Indeed, one of the artist’s earliest memories was of his father taking him to the forests around their home, after the young boy had seen a watercolour by his father entitled The Hermit, which had supposedly been painted within the confines of the nearby woods. Recalling this formative moment, the artist wrote of ‘mixed feelings when he first went into a forest: delight and oppression and what the Romantics called “emotion in the face of Nature.” The wonderful joy of breathing freely in an open space, yet at the same time distress at being hemmed in on all sides by hostile trees. Inside and outside, free and captive, at one and the same time’ (quoted in U. M. Schneede, Max Ernst, transl. by R. W. Last, London, 1973, p. 36).
Ernst once famously stated that it was his aim ‘to bring into the light of day the results of his voyages of discovery in the unconscious’ and to ‘record what is seen... on the frontier between the inner and the outer world’ (quoted in ibid., p. 105). For him, the forest was an archetypal symbol of this shadowy borderland between what is known and what is unknown. He elaborated on this concept in his 1934 essay ‘Les Mystères de la forêt,’ published in the Surrealist periodical Minotaure, vividly conveying his fascination with the various kinds of forests that populated the world. In particular, compositions such as Cage, forêt, soleil noir resonate with the central qualities he identified in the forests of distant Oceania: ‘They are, it seems, savage and impenetrable, black and russet, extravagant, secular, swarming, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent, and likeable, without yesterday or tomorrow … Naked, they dress only in their majesty and their mystery’ (‘Les Mystères de la forêt,’ Minotaure, no. 5, Paris, 1934).
A dense and impenetrable jungle of deeply textured, leafless trees fills the canvas in Cage, forêt, soleil noir, powerfully illustrating Ernst’s growing mastery of the grattage technique at this time, a semi-automatic process which had evolved from the artist’s experimental frottage drawings in the mid-1920s. Grattage involved the artist laying a canvas prepared with layers of oil paint over materials such as wire mesh, wooden boards, chair caning, pieces of string, buttons, leaves and textured glass panes. Using a palette knife, Ernst would then draw or scrape the paint across the canvas, allowing the surface underneath to generate an intricate pattern within the oil paint. He would then interpret and adapt their spontaneous forms, evoking nature and its wild growth patterns more intensely than a traditional realist approach. The expressive potential of the grattage technique is made all the more powerful in the present composition by the rich interplay between the thick, viscous black pigment that dominates the surface of the painting, and the layers of vibrant, primary colour underneath, which are just glimpsed through the various whorls and ripples made by the artist’s scrapings. Suggesting layers and layers of life, colour, and joy, hidden by the encroaching darkness of the forest, these bright hues conjure a distinct sense of mystery behind the strange, jagged, ghostly forms of the trees.
In many ways, this dark and deeply romantic depiction of the forest recalls the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the German Romantic tradition. Indeed, as the artist himself proclaimed: ‘The fact is, I’ve always had [Caspar David] Friedrich’s paintings and ideas more or less consciously in mind, almost from the day I started painting’ (quoted in E. Roditi, ‘Ein Mittagessen mit Max Ernst,’ in Der Monat, vol. 13, n. 1950, March 1960, p. 70). Ernst’s interest in German Romanticism had initially been sparked during lectures as a student in Bonn, and the artist felt a deep spiritual connection to Friedrich, seeing in his art a profound, enigmatic approach to the landscape that paralleled his own thoughts and artistic concerns. Indeed, when nine Friedrich paintings were destroyed by a fire in Munich in 1931, Ernst felt it not only as a deeply personal loss, but also a foreboding and portentous event. In the Forêt paintings, Ernst’s dark, atmospheric thickets of trees appear to draw directly from Friedrich’s explorations of the Sublime, their towering, overlapping forms conjuring a sense of magical enchantment and awe before the wonderous forces of nature.
The presence of a caged bird in the midst of these towering, impenetrable trees, meanwhile, represents another important link to Friedrich’s art, with the small avian occupying the role of the lone wanderer, a common figure in the Romantic tradition, within the scene. Birds had always played a significant role in Ernst’s life – since childhood, as he himself explained, he had made a clear unconscious connection in his mind between people and birds, after his favourite pet (a bird by the name of Horneborn) had died on the same night his sister Loni was born. Unlike other works from the Forêt series, such as Vision provoquée par l’aspect nocturne de la porte Saint-Denis (Spies, no. 1177) where the birds appear free among the cluster of towering trees, here the singular songbird is trapped, the barriers of its cage sharply incised into the paint. Though it remains serene and apparently unconcerned by the situation, the foreboding, interlocking forms of its surroundings lends the impression that the bird is imprisoned not only within the small cage, but also the confines of the forest itself, suggesting that even if the creature were to slip between the bars, it would never find a way to escape from the depths of this mysterious place.
Along with an impression of wild, untameable nature, the series of Forêt paintings evoke something of the modern urban landscape, the overlapping, abutting, geometric trees echoing the towering facades of buildings in the city. Indeed, the manner in which the mass of elongated geometric forms protrude into the bright blue sky summons an impression of the soaring skyscrapers of the vertically expanding cities of the interwar boom years. Ernst was not the first Surrealist to make this connection between the urban landscape and the forest – Louis Aragon’s Passage des cormorans, published in 1921, described an almost hallucinatory journey through a Parisian arcade, in which the shops and their wares are suddenly transformed into a primeval forest: ‘The plants are so overgrown, the animals are so rampant, that I feel myself entangled, crushed, strangled; wormlike creatures streak across my face, insect feet crawl about under my cloth, nature overpowers me’ (quoted in T. Wessolowski, ‘What is a Forest?’ in W. Spies, I. Müller-Westermann and K. Degel, eds., Max Ernst: Dream and Revolution, exh. cat., Stockholm, 2008, p. 103).
In paintings such as Cage, forêt, soleil noir Ernst updated the Romantic vision of the mysterious forest for the modern experience, imbuing its wild, untameable nature with echoes of the urban landscape, capturing the sense of wandering through the city, feeling dwarfed by the environment, and becoming lost in the tangled landscape of the metropolis. Ernst brought this theme to further heights in his famous series of grattage paintings Ville entière (1933-1937), in which the striations and floral patterns consume the crumbling buildings of a ruined city, poignantly foreshadowing the political storm clouds gathering over Europe.
Cage, forêt, soleil noir is one of just five forest paintings the artist created on this huge scale in 1927, three of which are now in important museum collections around the world. The painting was acquired directly from the artist by Claude Hersaint, and has been a central work within his esteemed collection for many years. Hersaint’s passion for Surrealist art had been sparked in 1921 when a friend’s sister brought him to see an exhibition of Ernst’s collages, entitled Exposition Dada Max Ernst, at the Au Sans Pareil bookshop in Paris. The artist had been invited to show a selection of his work in the ‘gallery’ by André Breton, who also contributed a text to the exhibition’s catalogue. This show, which was the first time Ernst’s work had been publicly shown in Paris, was an important turning point in the artist’s career, bringing him to the attention of many of the key figures of what would become the Surrealist movement. Hersaint made his first artistic purchase at the show, a move that marked not only the genesis of his collection but also the beginning of a long, personal friendship with Ernst.