Crystallising the ebbs and flows of blue paint into a fantastic landscape, Étude pour un cavalier polonais was executed by Max Ernst in 1954. Evoking the rocky expanses of some primordial submarine world, the surface of the work was created through decalcomania, a technique Ernst had pioneered during the 1930s, under the aegis of Surrealism. After having applied wet paint onto the canvas, the artist would press a glass over the surface; its movement and removal would create friction, helping to form a myriad of unforeseen shapes and effects in the still fluid paint. The process thus created a contrasted and stimulating composition by chance, visually reminiscent of caves and forests, in which the artist – guided by his unconscious – was able to see animals and figures emerge. Although achieving an abstract effect at first, decalcomania was considered by Ernst as a path to images, as the accidental repository of the shapes of his own unconscious. ‘As far as I’m concerned’, Ernst declared, ‘I grant the painter the right to speak, to laugh, to take a stand and to draw upon all his hallucinatory faculties. But I absolutely refuse to live like a Tachist’ (quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat., Knokke le Zoute, 1953, p. 30). Riding Ernst’s taste for hallucination, in Étude pour un cavalier polonais one could indeed perceive, emerging from the lower right corner of this lunar landscape, a horse, his muzzle looking over to the right, sitting like a man, his hooves over his knees.
Étude pour un cavalier polonais was indeed executed in relation to another painting, Le cavalier polonais, also completed that year. Both pictures refer to Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, which Ernst had occasion to observe at the Frick Collection in New York the previous year. Depicting a horseman traversing a rocky, brooding landscape, Rembrandt’s work might have encouraged the artist to perceive a distant, yet surprising reflection of his own decalcomania universe in the tortuous forms of the picture’s setting. In this regard, Étude pour un cavalier polonais may have served Ernst as a necessary intermediate re-elaboration, through which he re-created the fascinating landscape of Rembrandt’s work in his own terms, before being able to populate it fully with new creatures, as subsequently shown in Le cavalier polonais. Extremely knowledgeable about art history, Ernst had always had access to a varied, personal visual encyclopaedia, whose references he subtly dispersed into his works throughout his life (cf. T. Gaehtgens, ‘Max Ernst and the Great Masters’, pp. 37-49, in Max Ernst: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2005). Rather than making direct reference to Rembrandt, however, Étude pour un cavalier polonais appears as an inspired flight of fantasy, in which the landscape created through decalcomania takes over, hiding in its entrails the vague souvenir of a white horse.
In 1954 – the year Étude pour un cavalier polonais was completed – Ernst was awarded the Grand Prix for painting at the Twenty-seventh Venice Biennale. He was in good company: Jean Arp had won the prize for sculpture, while Joan Miró was awarded the prize for graphic arts. Surrealism had triumphed over the canals of La Serenissima. Yet, Ernst was not allowed to join his own celebration. As he and Dorothea Tanning walked towards the pavilion across the Giardini, the couple was stopped by the police. Ernst had forgotten his special permit. His Italian being quite limited, he muttered a couple of times ‘primo premio’, hoping the policemen would recognise in him the awarded artist. Suspicious of having to deal with a megalomaniac, however, the policemen escorted the couple to the exit, expelling them with no regrets. The award, however, considerably changed the artist’s life. Patrick Waldberg observed: ‘Thanks to the Biennale prize, and to the concentrated efforts of some friends active on his behalf, Max Ernst found his situation finally stable once more: at the age of sixty-five, and after so much insecurity and so many tribulations, he would now perhaps be able to give himself up to his art in peace, without any harassing fears for the future’ (quoted in E. Quinn, Max Ernst, London, 1977, p. 282).