MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
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MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)

Le roi jouant avec la reine

MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
Le roi jouant avec la reine
signed 'Max Ernst' (on the front)
bronze with brown patina
Height: 39 1/2 in. (100.5 cm.)
Conceived in 1944 and cast in 1953-1961
Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York (probably acquired from the artist).
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Randall Shapiro, Chicago (acquired from the above); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 10 November 1992, lot 50.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
M. Ernst, Beyond Painting and Other Writings about the Artist and his Friends, New York, 1948, p. 78 (plaster illustrated, p. 79).
C. Giedion-Welcker, Contemporary Sculpture: An Evolution in Volume and Space, New York, 1955, p. 244 (another cast illustrated).
P. Waldberg, Max Ernst, Paris, 1958, p. 409 (another cast illustrated).
F. Hazan, Dictionnaire de la sculpture moderne, Paris, 1960, p. 88 (another cast illustrated; titled Le roi jouant aux échecs avec sa reine).
J. Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work, New York, 1967, no. 147 (another cast illustrated).
W. Spies, S. and G. Metken, Max Ernst: Oeuvre-Katalog, Werke 1939-1953, Cologne, 1987, p. 86, no. 2465,I (another cast illustrated).
W. Spies, Max Ernst: Sculptures, maisons, paysages, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1998 (plaster illustrated, p. 135; another cast illustrated).
The Art Institute of Chicago, The Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Randall Shapiro Collection, 1985, p. 58, no. 56 (illustrated, fig. 46).
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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

During the summer of 1944, Max Ernst rented a beach house in Great River, on the south shore of Long Island, with his partner Dorothea Tanning. The artist had planned on spending several leisurely weeks relaxing and swimming, enjoying the weather and an extended break away from the city. However, the ever-present mosquitoes soon drove Ernst inside, leading him to screen off the garage and convert the space into a small studio. Here, he immersed himself in creating sculptures, expanding upon the small plaster forms he had experimented with in France during the mid-1930s, before the outbreak of the Second World War, to create unique carvings in mahogany and dynamic assemblages in plaster. The artist’s gallerist, Julien Levy, and his future-wife, the artist Muriel Streeter, joined Ernst and Tanning during their summer sojourn, and Levy was instantly taken with the originality of the sculptures: “I feel terribly impressed, and I confess in confidence to Dorothea that Max has suddenly become the greatest sculptor in the modern world” (quoted in W. Spies, Max Ernst: Sculptures Maisons Paysages, exh. cat., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1998, p. 132).
Le roi jouant avec la reine is among the most important sculptures to have emerged during this highly productive time, rooted in a subject that preoccupied the artist intensely—the strategic maneuvering of chess. Ernst was an avid player and enthusiast of the game, a passion he shared with all three of his companions that summer, and had been dismayed to find that there was not a proper chess set to be found anywhere in Great River. As a result, he and Levy set about creating their own, utilizing a series of familiar objects they had discovered around the house—Levy reportedly used eggshells from breakfast as molds for his pieces, the rounded bottoms designed for use in the sand, while Ernst created assemblages using a host of empty containers and kitchen utensils, flouting tradition by making his Queen the largest piece in the set. The project sparked Levy and Ernst’s imaginations, leading them to conceive of an exhibition devoted to artist-designed chess sets, along with a series of artworks inspired by the game, entitled “The Imagery of Chess.” Opening that December at Levy’s gallery in midtown Manhattan, the show featured an exciting group of dynamic, avant-garde designs by thirty two artists, including new work by Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Isamu Noguchi, Tanning, and Ernst, and was informally curated by Marcel Duchamp.
Making its debut at the exhibition, Le roi jouant avec la reine offered a powerful Surrealist vision of the game. Initially conceived in plaster, the sculpture centers on a large hybrid figure, the King of the title, as he studies the board mid-way through a match. Before him stand different pieces from Ernst’s latest designs for chess figures, including the tall, canonical Queen, who towers over the sextet of pieces before her, each awaiting their own turn to move and join the fray. The King’s hand hovers next to the Queen, either readying himself to initiate a move or gently shielding her from harm, as if aware of an on-coming attack by his opponent. An elegant study in pure form and concise volumes, Ernst may have drawn inspiration for the character of the King from Native American sculptures and artefacts, particularly the painted wooden Kachina figures of the Hopi and Zuni tribes, a large collection of which he had amassed upon his arrival in America. Indeed, the rectangular head of the King, surmounted by a pair of curving horns, recalls several sculptures from Ernst’s collection, visible in a 1942 photograph by James Thrall Soby.
The most visually compelling aspect of the sculpture, however, lies in the sense of tension Ernst generates in the spaces between the forms. There is a palpable feeling of suspense as we await the next move, watching to see how the game unfolds and the dynamics shift. It was in this aspect of chess, Duchamp argued, that its true beauty could be found: “A game of chess is a visual and plastic thing… The pieces aren’t pretty in themselves, any more than is the form of the game, but what is pretty—if the word “pretty” can be used—is the movement… In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain. It’s the imagining of the movement or of the gesture that makes the beauty, in this case. It’s completely in one’s gray matter” (quoted in P. Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, London, 1987, pp. 18-19). In Le roi jouant avec la reine, Ernst enhances this tension by engaging the viewer directly in the game being played—when standing before the sculpture, we inevitably take the position of the King’s opponent, occupying the other side of the chess board.
In many ways, the sculpture is built on the study of opposition and power dynamics, using the rich associations of the game and its history to suggest multiple layers of potential meaning. For example, by allowing the Queen, traditionally the most powerful piece on the board, to be dominated and controlled by the King, Ernst suggests a dangerous power imbalance between the two, in which she has no agency in the proceedings. She holds the ability to protect or eliminate all of the other pieces on the board before her, but remains beholden to the whims of the King’s controlling hand. While this may be seen as a commentary on the sexual dynamics between men and women, many contemporary commentators saw in “The Imagery of Chess” the shadow of the ongoing war in Europe—in a time of conflict, chess stood as a controllable, table-top symbol of ritual warfare, a battle built on logic and strategy, that at once echoed the wider context of world politics, and stood in stark opposition to the apparent chaos and madness being waged by those in power. After “The Imagery of Chess” closed, Ernst presented the plaster version of Le roi jouant avec la reine to his friend Robert Motherwell, who later recalled: “Max Ernst made some haunting sculpture in white plaster, including The King Playing with the Queen. Angry at its general rejection, and moved by my admiration, he gave me The King … on the spot. I barely managed to get it into my little Nash convertible” (quoted in H.H. Arnason and D. Ashton, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, p. 106). Almost a decade later, Jean and Dominique de Menil organized for the sculpture to be cast in bronze, ensuring the fragile original was saved for posterity.

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