‘The last superstition and final sad vestige of the myth of Creation remaining to western culture was the legend of artistic creativity. It was one of the first revolutionary acts of Surrealism to have attacked this myth with straightforward means and in the sharpest manner, and presumably to have destroyed it forever, by absolutely insisting on the purely passive role of the "author" in the mechanics of poetic inspiration and by exposing every type of "active" control through reason, morality or aesthetic considerations as inimical to inspiration’
In 1934, the same year that he published this forceful acclamation of automatism in art, Max Ernst undertook a series of profoundly inventive paintings (Spies, nos. 2416-2151) that have their basis in photographs and illustrations documenting experiments with the flow of air and water around various objects, which caused the current to deviate from its straight course into dynamic, wave-like patterns. In these scientific images of physical forces at work – of energy visualised – Ernst found a fresh way of seeing, unencumbered by conventional artistic meanings and bearing tantalizing associations with his own passions and inner states. During the preceding years, he had frequently incorporated ‘found’ images from various scientific journals and encyclopedias into his radical collage practice; now, instead, he recreated and adapted his source material in oils, using the language of physical energy to picture the unconscious and deeply personal phenomena of sexual generation, biological growth, and creative revelation.
In Paysage-effet d’attouchement, one of the largest and most elaborate compositions in this series, the rhythmic waves can be construed as both eddies of water and strata of earth deposited over time. A white, wedge-shaped object slices into the landscape at the left, possibly derived from a diagram of an aircraft wing in transverse section, showing airflow over its surface. Here, the encroaching form has become the nageur aveugle (blind swimmer), as Ernst titled a related painting – a proxy for the artist who feels his way forward according to an inner vision, freeing his mind from the constraints of external reality so that the layers of the subconscious can become visible. ‘Before he goes into water,’ Ernst explained, ‘a diver cannot know what he will bring back. A painter does not choose his subject. Imposing one upon himself, be it ever so subversive and exciting, and treating it in an academic manner, would mean producing a work of weak revolutionary effect’ (Ernst, quoted in J. Pech, Max Ernst: Sculptures, Milan, 1996, p. 69).
The swelling, undulant forms of the present landscape also invoke the contours of the female body or the inner layers of the flesh, like a topographical map to its most secret, buried regions. ‘They can be seen as human anatomies’, John Russell has written, ‘in which the blind explorer, groping this way and that, has stumbled upon the crevice that leads to the source of creation’ (J. Russell, Max Ernst, Life and Work, London, 1967, p. 113). The white rod functions as a phallic emblem, penetrating the channel of parallel folds and impelling its unseen seed toward the waiting egg at the epicentre of the image. The hill at the top of the landscape takes the form of a human breast, appended to which is a hybrid organism connoting propagation – at once a plant that sprouts from the fertile terrain, its stem bowed in a breeze and its seeds about to scatter, and a hummingbird that appears to drink from the pollen-dusted nipple.
Sailing above this imaginative vision is a larger, more brilliantly coloured bird, this one constituting an alter-ego for the artist himself. Since 1930, Ernst had featured in his work a hallucinatory, avian surrogate known as Loplop, Superior of Birds – ‘a private phantom very much attached and devoted to me’, he explained. Birds, with their ability to pass between the realms of earth and sky, have long served in religious lore as messengers and prophets; Loplop, likewise, functioned as a shamanic guide to Ernst’s imagination and creative process. ‘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’ (G. Fischer, Max Ernst: Retrospective, exh. cat., Vienna, 2013, p. 163).
The paintings that Ernst developed from scientific studies of flow patterns served him during the ensuing years as a creative wellspring in their own right. In the summer of 1934, as a guest of Giacometti at his home in Maloja, Switzerland, Ernst collected smooth, rounded rocks from the moraine of the Forno glacier and transformed them into painted or carved egg-shaped sculptures, representing the forces of water and time as undulating waves and biomorphic shapes that envelop the surface of the stone. During 1935-1936, Ernst painted a series of variations on the original theme in which the striated forms are more dense and tangled – the maze of the human consciousness increasingly impenetrable and unknowable – evoking the artist’s apocalyptic forest imagery of these years (Spies, nos. 2172-2175, 2252).
During the same period, Ernst selected Paysage-effet d’attouchement for inclusion in a pair of momentous exhibitions, which marked a zenith for Surrealism in the global limelight. In summer 1936, the painting was featured in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London, at which Dalí memorably delivered a lecture while wearing a deep-sea diving suit. Later the same year, it traveled to The Museum of Modern Art in New York for Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, organized by founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., which put Surrealism on the map for American audiences. In 1937, the canvas was included in a special issue of Cahiers d’Art devoted entirely to Ernst and his work – in effect, a retrospective exhibition in print. ‘It remains a capital document’, Russell has written, ‘and it would be difficult to better either the choice of works for reproduction or the quality of the éloges’ (J. Russell, op. cit., 1967, p. 124).
The first recorded owner of Paysage-effet d’attouchement was the curator and critic James Johnson Sweeney, an impassioned advocate for innovative and experimental art. Sweeney led the prestigious Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA following the Second World War and subsequently, from 1952 until 1959, served as director of the Guggenheim Museum. The painting passed to the present owner in the 1970s and has never since changed hands on the market.