The dark, ominous forest is a recurring theme in the oeuvre of Max Ernst. The artist grew up on the outskirts of the vast forest of Brühle in the Rhineland, where his imagination was piqued by the constant proximity of this dark, mysterious and impenetrable presence on his doorstep. From an early age the forest was always a labyrinthine arena of mystery, danger and possibility that preyed on and haunted the recesses of Ernst's unconscious mind: "They are, it seems, savage and impenetrable, black and russet, extravagant, secular, swarming, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent, and likeable, without yesterday or tomorrow. . . . Naked, they dress only in their majesty and their mystery" (Ernst, "Some Data on the Youth of M. E. as told by himself," Beyond Painting, New York, 1948, p. 27).
Forest imagery is most prevalent in works of the late twenties and early thirties, such as L'oiseau dans la forêt (fig. 1). The theme of the bird in the forest is laboriously reworked during this period in several media, attesting to the artist's fascination with the subject. The forest bird would later evolve into the birdman Loplop, named after Ernst's childhood pet. This semi-fictional creature would emerge from Ernst's forests as both the artist's muse and mystic alter-ego who would guide him on further adventures through the thickets and complex passages of Romantic tradition in painting and in particular to the work of Caspar David Friedrich. As Ernst himself revealingly recalled, the deep Romanticism of his forest paintings probably reflects the fact that alongside his childhood experiences of living on the edge of one, he had "always had Friedrich's paintings and ideas more or less consciously in mind, almost from the day I started painting" (quoted in "Ein Mittagessen mit Max Ernst," Der Monat, vol. 13, 1960, p. 70).
Seeing the forest, like Friedrich, as both a projection and a mirror of his own imagination, Ernst wanted his art to speak about and to the inner nature of man. Freidrich expressed his aims in these words: "Close your physical eye, so that you see your painting first of all with the eye of the spirit. Then bring out into the light what you saw in the darkness, so that it may react inwardly upon others" (Caspar David Friedrich, "Statement on the Observation of a Collection of Paintings by Artists Mostly Living or Recently Dead"). Ernst expressed the same sentiment when he claimed his art to be attempting "to bring into the light of day the results of voyages of discovery in the unconscious and ...(to record)... what is seen...and experienced...on the frontier between the inner and outer world."
The present painting continues to explore the mysteries of the forest which Ernst investigated in his earlier works. The ghoulish moon illuminates the menacing darkness and density of the trees, revealing macabre mutations and animations on the trunks' surfaces. In a masterful articulation of the patterns of nature, skeletal figures appear in the crooks and crags of the wood. One can distinguish full skeletons in the three trees in the center of the canvas. Once these figures become apparent, the eye searches for others, but finds only fragments and suggestions. Though seemingly devoid of all signs of life or growth, the presence of the animated skeletons hints at the presence of another world, lurking deep in the thick darkness.
(fig. 1) L'oiseau dans la forêt, 1927. Private collection.
(fig. 2) Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey in the Oak Forest, 1809-1810. Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.