MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
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MAX ERNST (1891-1976)

démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température

MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température
signed and inscribed 'démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température / max ernst' (along the lower edge of the artist's mount)
paper collage, gouache, pen and India ink and pencil on paper laid on the artist's mount
Image: 9 3⁄8 x 6 ¾ in. (24 x 17 cm.)
Artist’s mount: 11 ¾ x 8 ¾ in. (29.5 x 22.2 cm.)
Executed in 1920
Galerie Jacques Tronche, Paris, by 1968.
Jacques Tronche, Paris, by 1975.
Private collection, France.
U. M. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst, London, 1972, p. 207 (illustrated, no. 46).
W. Spies, S. & G. Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1906-1925, Cologne, 1975, no. 346, p. 175 (illustrated).
E. Quinn, Max Ernst, London, 1977, no. 62, p. 60 (illustrated).
I. Turpin, Ernst, New York, 1979, no. 3, p. 27 & 36 (illustrated; titled 'Hydrometric Demonstration' and with incorrect dimensions).
W. Konnertz, Max Ernst, Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, Übermalungen, Frottagen, Cologne, 1980, no. 13 (illustrated).
Exh. cat., Max Ernst Das Rendezvous der Freunde, Cologne, 1991, p. 64 (illustrated).
W. A. Camfield, Max Ernst: Dada and Dawn of Surrealism, exh. cat., Munich & New York, 1993, no. 52, p. 366 (illustrated pl. 54).
Paris, Au Sans Pareil, Exposition Dada Max Ernst, May - June 1921, no. 18 (titled 'Démonstration hydrométrique').
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, March - June 1968, no. 91, p. 233 (illustrated fig. 63, p. 50); this exhibition later travelled to Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, July - September, 1968; and Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, October - December, 1968.
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Max Ernst: a retrospective, February - April 1975, no. 43, p. 85 (illustrated).
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand-Palais, Max Ernst, May - August 1975, no. 54, p. 158 (illustrated p. 37).
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 10x Max Ernst, Eine didaktische Ausstellung zum Versta ndnis seiner Kunst, Bilder, Fotos, Texte, November 1978 - January 1979, p. 8 (illustrated p.9).
Munich, Haus der Kunst, Max Ernst, Retrospektive 1979, February - April 1979, no. 33, p. 219 (illustrated pl. 7, p. 25 & p. 219); this exhibition later travelled to Berlin, Nationalgalerie, May - July 1979.
Cologne, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Max Ernst in Köln, die Rheinische Kunstszene bis 1922, May - July 1980, p. 325 (illustrated p. 213).
Tübingen, Kunsthalle, Max Ernst, die Welt der Collage, September - November 1988, no. 22, pp. 495 & 506 (illustrated pl. 35 (3)); this exhibition later travelled to Bern, Kunstmuseum, December 1988 - February 1989; and Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, February - April 1989.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, October 1990 - January 1991, no. 57, pp. 266 & 458 (illustrated p. 266); this exhibition later travelled to Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, February - May 1991; and Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, June - September 1991.
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Max Ernst: sculptures, maisons, paysages, May - July 1998, no. 4, p. 307 (illustrated, p. 35; titled 'Démonstration hydrométrique'); this exhibition later travelled to Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, September - November 1998.
Vienna, Albertina, Max Ernst: Retrospective, January - May 2013, no. 20. p. 57 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Basel, Fondation Beyeler, May - September 2013.

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Ottavia Marchitelli
Ottavia Marchitelli Senior Specialist, Head of The Art of The Surreal Sale

Lot Essay

démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température is one of the finest and best-known of Max Ernst’s celebrated early ‘overpaintings.’ These were collage-type works in which the artist gave pictorial form to his disquieting visions of the modern world, painting over printed illustrations and advertisements for scientific equipment in such a way as to create startlingly new images of an unsettling universe of strangely animate apparatuses and anthropomorphic machines. In a letter dated 3 October 1921, André Breton described meeting Ernst, and highlighted the powerful impact of these revolutionary works. ‘I met Max Ernst here, that German fellow for whom I organized an exhibition in Paris and about whom I don’t believe I have yet told you,’ he wrote. ‘I consider him one of the most remarkable minds of the age. He’s the one, you know, who paints on photographs, which themselves are the result of a combination of existing printed material, such as illustrated advertisements, botanical plates, sports pictures, instructions for women’s handicrafts, etc. He made Picabia nearly die of chagrin. I sometimes maintain that we owe a brand of art to him that corresponds to the new conception of things advanced by Einstein’ (Letter to André Derain, October 3, 1921; quoted in Werner Spies, Max Ernst, Collages, The Invention of the Surrealist Universe, London, 1991, p. 67).
Used as the cover illustration for the English language edition of Werner Spies’ landmark publication on Ernst’s Collages, démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température is a famous example of these iconic works, made in 1920, at the height of the artist’s involvement with the Dada movement in Cologne. Titled in French, this work was also created with one eye on the then burgeoning Dada movement in Paris to which Ernst was also very closely connected, through his new friends Paul Eluard and André Breton. Indeed, démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température was one of a select number of the artist’s pioneering early collages and overpaintings chosen by the artist for inclusion in his first, highly successful, one-man show in Paris, held at the Galerie Au Sans Pareil under the title ‘Exposition Dada: Max Ernst,’ between 3 May and 3 June 1921.
This exhibition, featuring what William Rubin would later call ‘proto-Surrealist’ pictures, effectively announced Ernst to the Parisian avant-garde and strongly reinforced the artist’s decision to move to the city soon afterwards. The vast majority of the works on display at the Galerie Au Sans Pareil were overpaintings of the kind that démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température typifies, which Ernst had been diligently working on for several months, inspired by a number of recent experiences and influences. On a trip to visit Paul Klee in Munich, for example, Ernst had not only encountered the Swiss artist’s daring new works, but also the art of Giorgio de Chirico, which he discovered in an edition of the periodical Valori Plastici in a Munich bookshop. The strange meta-mechanical poetics evoked by De Chirico’s mannequins, sharp geometries and frequent use of high perspective lines prompted Ernst to explore this new metaphysical world through the medium of collage.
In collage, Ernst declared at this time, he had found what he called ‘the systematic exploitation of the fortuitous or engineered encounter of two or more intrinsically incompatible realities on a surface which is manifestly inappropriate for the purpose – and the spark of poetry which leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together’ (quoted in U. M. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst, London, 1972, p. 29). In overpaintings like démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température Ernst threw this ‘poetic’ conjoining of two ‘incompatible realities’ into direct contrast with one another by translating a single advertisement for scientific equipment into an entirely new, visionary landscape of anthropomorphic, meta-mechanical figures.
‘I was struck,’ Ernst would later recall, ‘by the obsession which the pages of an illustrated catalogue showing objects designed for the anthropologic, microscopic, psychologic, mineralogic and palaeontologic demonstration exercised on my irritated mind. There I found, brought together, elements of figuration so remote that the sheer absurdity of that collection provoked a sudden intensification of the visionary faculties in me and brought forth an illusive succession of contradictory images, double, triple and multiple images, piling up on each other with the persistence and rapidity which are peculiar to love memories and visions of half-sleep… It was enough at that time to embellish these catalogue pages, in painting or drawing, and thereby in gently reproducing only that which saw itself in me, a colour, a pencil mark, a landscape foreign to the represented objects, the desert, a tempest, a geological cross-section, a floor, a single straight line signifying the horizon… thus I obtained a faithful fixed image of my hallucination and transformed it into dramas revealing my most secret desires – from what had been before only some banal pages of advertising’ (‘What is the mechanism of collage? 1936; in H. B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 427).
In démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température Ernst has taken a single sheet of printed illustrations from a catalogue advertising apparatus for measuring the pressure of fluids (page 756 from the Kölner Lehrmittelanstalt, to be specific) and simply turned it upside down and then painted over it. The resultant picture (or vision) is separated into two sections, interior and exterior, by a bar that, anticipating Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), turns the lower part of the picture into a square in which a series of De Chirico-like perspective lines demarcate a room. The upper half of the painting depicts the hydrometric apparatus silhouetted like chimneys against the sky. Ernst’s painterly additions transform the various machines in the advertisement into a sequence of anthropomorphic figures not unlike some of Francis Picabia’s contemporaneous meta-mechanical creations.
Alchemy too, in its pseudo-scientific role and as sexual metaphor for the mystical cojoining of two seemingly incompatible opposites, seems to have played a part in much of the often pseudo-scientific imagery of such a work with its suggestion of mysterious alembics and apparently nonsensical scientific apparatuses. There is, however, also something sinister about the mechano-morphic personae that Ernst creates here: a feature of his work of this period that no doubt relates to the trauma of the artist’s recent war experience. ‘We young people came back from the war dazed and our disgust simply had to find an outlet,’ Ernst remembered of this period. ‘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’ (quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1991, p. 82).
Working closely alongside fellow Dadaist Hans Arp at this time, and inspired by Arp’s illogical appropriation of chance as a working method, Ernst was also seeking to divine a hidden poetry or ‘inner alchemy of the word’ as one Dadaist put it, lying innate within the oppressive structures of logic and reason. This Arthur Rimbaud-like search for a poetry hidden within the structures of language and representation was expressed not only in the literally upended logic of a picture like démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température but also in the deliberate irrationality of many of the titles Ernst granted to these early collages and overpaintings. The notion of ‘killing by temperature’, mentioned in the title of this work, for example, also reinforces this latent sense of the threat of the rational and logical world of order: a world which the Dadaists maintained had only culminated in madness and automated slaughter of the First World War. William Camfield has interpreted démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température as depicting a kind of ‘torture chamber’ for instance, while Hal Foster has seen in it a powerful example of the war-veteran Ernst’s attack on the mechanized butchery of the war (W. Camfield, Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 82).

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