Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Beyond Boundaries: Avant-Garde Masterworks from a European Collection
Max Ernst (1891-1976)

Le chant du pinson

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Le chant du pinson
signed and dated 'max ernst 33' (lower right)
oil and paper collage with brush and pen and black ink on canvas
32 x 39 in. (81.4 x 99 cm.)
Executed in 1933
The Bodley Gallery, New York (by March 1961).
Private collection, Sarasota.
Private collection, Atlanta.
Galerie Tarica, Paris (acquired from the above, circa 1970).
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owners, circa 1970.
H. Janis and R. Blesh, Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques, Philadelphia, 1962, p. 289, no. 120 (illustrated, p. 106).
W. Spies and S. and G. Metken, Max Ernst: Werke, 1929-1938, Cologne, 1979, p. 156, no. 1869 (illustrated).
W. Spies, Max Ernst: Loplop, The Artist in the Third Person, New York, 1983, pp. 61 and 185 (illustrated in color, pl. 30).
Kunsthaus Zürich, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Julio González, Joan Miró, October-November 1934, p. 10, no. 46.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, Max Ernst, March-July 1961, p. 53, no. 64.
London, Tate Gallery, Max Ernst, September-October 1961, p. 49, no. 114.
New York, The Bodley Gallery, Max Ernst: Paintings, Collages, Drawings, Sculpture, October-November 1961 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

The frequent, hallucinatory appearance of birds in Ernst’s work had by 1927 become a virtual obsession for the artist, which around 1930 resulted in his creation of an avian alter-ego, a doppelgänger with a beak and wings, whom he dubbed “Loplop, Superior of Birds.” During the ensuing three years, the artist produced a long series of collages that feature this mysterious, self-reflexive figure—“a private phantom very much attached and devoted to me,” as Ernst described him. Birds, with their ability to pass between the realms of earth and sky, have long served in religious lore as messengers and prophets; the ancient Etruscans and Romans, for example, foretold events by observing patterns of avian flight. Loplop, likewise, functions in the collages as a shamanic guide to Ernst’s imagination and creative process, presenting to the viewer all manner of found images, from picture postcards to botanical illustrations.
“In identifying the bird with his ‘self,’ while at the same time casting it as a kind of disconnected superego,” Gisela Fischer has written, “Ernst was able not only to evoke the automatic creative process but also to attain something that was always of great importance for him—to merge passivity and activity into a creative principle” (Max Ernst: Retrospective, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2013, p. 163).
Ernst’s profound identification with his avian avatar, which bore a strange but unmistakable resemblance to his own narrow features and pointed profile, had its roots, he claimed, in a youthful trauma. In “An Informal Life of M.E.,” written in the third person, Ernst recounted this formative event. “One of his best friends, a most intelligent and affectionate pink cockatoo, died in the night. It was an awful shock to Max when he found the corpse in the morning and when, at the same moment, his father announced to him the birth of his sister Loni. The perturbation of the youth was so enormous that he fainted. In his imagination he connected both events and charged the baby with the extinction of the bird’s life. A series of mystical crises, fits of hysteria, exaltations, and depressions followed. A dangerous confusion between birds and human beings became encrusted in his mind and asserted itself in his drawings and paintings” (quoted in W.S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, New York, 1968, p. 182).
In the present collage, Ernst has superimposed the painted figure of Loplop over a meticulously calligraphed, decorative folio that gives the work its title: Le chant du pinson (“The Song of the Finch”). “Cards of this type were often printed with homilies for the edification of the young,” Werner Spies has explained (op. cit., 1983, p. 61), and Ernst either pasted them unchanged into his Loplop collages or may have made additions to them that simulate an old writing style. Ernst used such sheets as the basis for at least eight collages in 1932-1933, of which Le chant du pinson is one of the two largest (Spies, nos. 1853, 1864-1870). Challenging conventional language and behavior was, of course, a principal preoccupation for the Surrealist circle—hence, perhaps, Ernst’s abiding interest in these printed pages, with their standardized format and clichéd sentiments. “These calligraphic exercises which Max Ernst pastes into his collages, what are they if not samples of those overworked maxims from which the Surrealists wanted to liberate art?” (ibid., p. 81).
Ernst might have been drawn to this specific sheet by the illustration at the top of a nesting bird, a motif that resonated within his private mythology. “The 2nd of April (1891) at 9:45 a.m. Max Ernst had his first contact with the sensible world, when he came out of the egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest and which the bird had brooded for seven years,” he wrote in “Some Data on the Youth of M.E., as Told by Himself,” again using the third person (quoted in M.E. Warlick, Max Ernst and Alchemy, Austin, 2001, p. 10). In the present collage, Ernst juxtaposes the ready-made, wholly conventional image of tenderly protective and nurturing avian maternity with the deeply personal and idiosyncratic figure of Loplop, here intertwined and conjoined as though mating with another bird, which holds an egg in its beak—whether dislodging or devouring it, we cannot be sure. The material division between the two halves of the image, hand-painted versus pasted, heightens this contrast, challenging the viewer to shift between varied levels of reality as in Cubist papier collé.
“Collage is the exploitation of the chance meeting of two distant realities on an unfamiliar plane,” Spies wrote, “the culture of systematic displacement and its effects—and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as the two realities converge” (“Beyond Painting,” Cahiers d’Art, 1936; quoted in W. Spies, ed., Max Ernst: Life and Work, London, 2006, p. 55).
Unlike Ernst’s earlier work in cut paper, in which the artist carefully concealed the joins to create the impression of a single, unbroken image, the Loplop collages call attention to the discontinuity between the disparate components of the work. “Here for the first time, collage was allowed to speak with its own voice,” Spies has explained. “Joints, edges, breaks, the spaces that separate the elements, and the diverse origin of those elements themselves, all now contributed to a polyphonic variety; and in place of a pictorial continuum now appeared images built up of multifaceted material, conscious collages” (op. cit., 1983, p. 16).

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