During 1936 Max Ernst painted a series of intricately detailed canvases in which he reveals amid tangled, jungle-like undergrowth a bizarrely animated vegetative world (Spies and Metken, nos. 2262-2275). Some of these pictures bear their own unique titles, while others share a kinship in their imagery and as groups of three bear the same title, such as La nymphe Echo and La nature à l'aurore. The present painting is one of three known as La joie de vivre; it is closely related to the largest and best known picture in the entire series, formerly in the collection of Roland Penrose (Spies and Metken, no. 2263; fig. l). A nude woman appears in the third picture with this title (Spies and Metken, no. 2275; Galerie Beyeler, Basel).
The thicket of foliage seen in these paintings has its most celebrated forebear in Dürer's Das grosse Rasenstück ("The Great Piece of Turf"), a watercolor study painted in 1503 (fig. 2). Ernst was heir to this Northern tradition, with its emphasis on the rendering of closely observed, scientifically accurate detail when depicting nature, which Ernst then used as the basis for his own surrealist recreation of plant and animal life. Among more recent antecedents are the well-known jungle paintings of the Douanier Henri Rousseau (fig. 3).
These paintings of botanical phantasmagoria followed on the series of ville entière pictures that Ernst began in 1935, where we observe a city that occupies the highest level of a plateau, whose terraces have stratified into petrifying layers, like Schliemann's seven cities of Troy. In La ville entière, 1935-1936, the culminating painting in this series, the city appears to rise up from a bed of vegetation, the ground on which it was originally built (Spies and Metken, no. 2220; fig. 4). The surrounding foliage now creeps forward, threatening to overwhelm and reclaim the city for itself, marking the end of a civilization. Ernst then turned his attention to the mysterious, even sinister proliferate forms of the plant kingdom in the Joie de vivre and related pictures. John Russell has observed:
"The point of departure, in almost every case, is the classic donnée of northern European landscape: green thoughts remembered in a green shade, the fertile disorder of a kitchen-garden gone slightly to seed, a middle ground somewhere between the orchard and the forest. Caspar David Friedrich would have recognized it, and so would the Ecole de Barbizon, as would Pissarro at Éragny. Generations of botanical draughtsman and patient workers in aquatint would have felt at home at first sight in Max Ernst's La joie de vivre [Spies and Metken, no. 2263], where the flat green leaves are spread out like a map of the nervous system and the blossom-structure has a firmly professional look" (Max Ernst: Life and Work, New York, 1967, p. 116).
The present version of La joie de vivre depicts an earlier stage in the emergence and evolution, as it were, of the various species of predatory, mantis-like insects and fiercely aggressive reptiles that dominate the sous-bois landscape in the Penrose painting. Lurking in the shadows, the menacing fauna seen here are well camouflaged, barely distinguishable from plant stalks, leaves, tendrils, stamens and sprays of pollens, awaiting the moment in which they will morph from their formative pupal state into fully-fledged voracious creatures and begin their cruel struggle for survival, Ernst's ironic take on the idea of La joie de vivre. The subtext in these paintings is Europe's headlong decline in chaos and violence during the 1930s. In the year that Ernst painted this canvas, the political battles between left and right in Spain erupted into civil war. The artist volunteered to serve the leftist Loyalist Republican cause, but was turned down, on the assumption that his application couldn't possibly be serious, and no one could figure out exactly what role a surrealist painter might play on the battlefield. In La joie de vivre, Ernst suggests a metaphor between the tangled forms in nature, and the maze of the human consciousness--both realms are impenetrable, unknowable and fraught with peril. John Russell has written:
"Closer inspection [of La joie de vivre; Spies and Metken, no. 2263] would reveal that the title has overtones of irony. Those tall green tangles, so eloquently erect against the sky, could be on the point of smothering all that lies below them. Those thin-shanked insects in the foreground could be playing some traditional game, but they could also be killing one another. Those analogies between plants, insects and ourselves could be triumphs of the mimetic faculty, tours de force to remind us of the unity of all created things. Yet when we discover a human figure, to the far right of the canvas, it suddenly becomes clear that those leaves are thirty feet across, that grasshopper as big as an elephant, and that jungle is a man-trap" (ibid.).
Ernst described the primeval forest as "debauched, worldly, teeming with life, diametrical, dissolute, cruel, passionate... without yesterday or tomorrow" (quoted in W. Spies, ed., Max Ernst: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 282). He was of two minds when pondering nature; he was both drawn to it and repelled by it. He moreover felt this opposition within his own personality, as he wrote of himself in the third person in his Biographical Notes:
"Regarding nature, one may discern in him two attitudes, in appearance irreconcilable: that of the god Pan and the man Papou who possesses all the mysteries and realizes the playful pleasure in his union with her ('He marries nature, he pursues the nymph Echo,' they say) and that of a conscious and organized Prometheus, thief of fire, guided by thought, who persecutes her with an implacable hatred and grossly injures her. 'This monster is pleased only at the antipodes of the landscape,' they repeat... 'He is a brain and a vegetable at the same time'" (quoted in ibid., p. 314).
Max Ernst with La joie de vivre (Spies and Metken, no. 2263), in his studio in the Rue des Plantes, Paris, 1936.
(fig. 1) Max Ernst, La joie de vivre, 1936. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
(fig. 2) Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503. The Albertina, Vienna.
(fig. 3) Henri Rousseau, Combat de tigre et de buffle, 1908. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
(fig. 4) (fig. 4) Max Ernst, La ville entière, 1935-1936. Kunsthaus Zurich.