‘No diver knows, before he goes down, what he is going to bring up. Nor can the painter choose his subject. Imposing one on himself, even if it is of the subversive, exciting kind, and treating it academically means contributing to a revolutionary work of very limited scope’ (Ernst, quoted in W. Spies & J. Drost, Max Ernst: Retrospective, exh. cat., Vienna, 2013, p. 143).
Painted in 1936, Aux antipodes du paysage is a powerful illustration of the constantly evolving nature of Max Ernst’s Surrealist vision, as an array of divergent stimuli pushed his art in new directions, driving his imagination deeper into the realm of dreams and fantasy. Exuding an air of mystery and suspense, the present composition is dominated by the vast expanse of a distant mountain range, which ripples across the lower half of the canvas in richly textured streams of colour, an effect achieved through the artist’s famed semi-automatic grattage technique. Above, the gently variegated sky shifts gradually from deep blue to turquoise green to a bright yellow as it touches the peaks in the distance, as if the sun is about to rise and transform the landscape with its light. In the foreground, meanwhile, a collection of strange, fantastical creatures cling to the side of a rocky escarpment, their poses suggesting a mysterious play of events, the meaning of which remains beyond our grasp. At once intensely familiar and distinctly otherworldly, the landscape provokes an intense sensation in the viewer, inviting them to enter into and explore this dreamlike world.
One of three compositions of the same title created by the artist in 1936 which share similar themes and compositional structure (Spies and Metken, no. 2255, no. 2256 & no. 2258), this work illustrates several key aspects of the artist’s creative concerns and process during this period. Indeed, in many ways Aux antipodes du paysage is a transitionary work, eloquently bridging the gap between the Ville entière and Jardin gobe-avions series of paintings that had occupied the artist for much of 1935, and the dense, jungle-like compositions that were to dominate his oeuvre over the course of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Like the present composition, the series of ville entière paintings had emerged from the spontaneous patterns and textures generated by the artist’s experiments with frottage and grattage. Having utilised this process as the starting point of his creative musings for almost a decade, Ernst was a master of the technique, and could manipulate his materials with incredible skill. Playing with the linear strips of textured paint that resulted from his layering and scraping of oil pigment, Ernst created an otherworldly landscape in which a series of terraces appear as petrified layers of rock and sediment, their origins, whether man-made or natural, remaining unclear. In these enigmatic works, a fortified city occupies the high plateau at the summit of the terracing, towering above the landscape, remaining at a distance from the viewer, seemingly forever out of reach.
However, in the culminating painting in the ville entière series (Spies and Metken, no. 2220), the city appears closer to the viewer, rising up from a bed of dense foliage, as thick stalks of otherworldly plant-life crowd together and embed themselves in the terraces. Indeed, it is almost as if the vegetation is slowly engulfing the citadel, the plants creeping upwards, entangling the structure in its web of thick vines and voracious foliage, gradually taking back the land it occupies. It is this dark, foreboding aspect of nature that Ernst would explore in his jungle paintings through the late 1930s and early 1940s, where dense groves of towering foliage, flowers and vines are interspersed with claw-like forms and unsettling hybrid creatures which emerge, threateningly, from the depths of the landscape. Camouflaged by their surroundings, they suggest a mysterious hidden world within the botanical phantasmagoria. In Aux antipodes du paysage, the artist places the viewer atop a promontory, raising them to a height so as to grant them a sweeping view of the dramatic landscape of mountains and craggy-peaks that fill the horizon. Considered alongside the ville entière paintings, it is as if Ernst has painted the view from the top tier of the ancient citadel, turning our eyes outwards, towards the terrain that surrounds the lonely, mysterious city.
The bulbous plant forms, meanwhile, have a bestial quality to them, as oddly shaped leaves, buds and blooms converge and overlap one another in a great tangle of forms reminiscent of the hybrid, carnivorous plant-like creatures that populated the Jardin gobe-avion paintings. Rather than being rooted in the setting, they appear to cling to the rocky terrain, their roots shaped to resemble claws or feet. Indeed, it seems as if the plants may suddenly lurch forward and scramble across the rocky outcrop as they chase some unsuspecting prey, a terrifying unseen force that foreshadow the sinister creatures that lurk within Ernst’s jungle paintings. To the left of the composition, a beautiful young, red-haired woman is grasped at the wrists by a fantastical creature with a strangely cylindrical head, which curls back on itself in an almost perfect spiral. Frozen in place, it remains unclear whether or not the creature is helping or hindering the young woman, restraining her as she attempts to escape or shielding her from the monstrous plants which advance towards them. The interaction between these two figures continued to haunt the artist over the following years, appearing in such later compositions as Ernst’s 1941 tour-de-force, The stolen mirror.
As is evident from Ernst’s writings on the subject, he was of two minds when pondering nature, simultaneously drawn to its wild beauty and repelled by it: ‘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 realises the playful pleasure in his union with her (“He marries nature, he pursues the nymph Echo” they say) and that of a conscious and organised Prometheus, thief of fire, guided by thought, who persecutes her with an implacable hatred and grossly injures her. “This monster is pleased only in the antipodes of the landscape,” they repeat … “He is a brain and a vegetable at the same time”’ (Ernst, writing in the third person, quoted in W. Spies, ed., Max Ernst: A Retrospective, exh. cat., London 1991, p. 314). Aux Antipodes du paysage captures a sense of these contrasting aspects in nature, the sublime beauty and majesty contrasted against its more threatening, destructive aspects.
Painted in France, Aux antipodes du paysage remained with the artist for a number of years, accompanying Ernst on his voyage to America following the eruption of war in Europe, and his subsequent move to Arizona with the artist Dorothea Tanning in 1943 – indeed, the address of the artist’s home in Sedona is still legible on the painting’s stretcher. In 1949, the composition featured in the exhibition ‘Max Ernst, 30 years of his work, a Survey,’ held at the Copley galleries in Beverly Hills, at which point it is reported to have belonged to Mrs Doris Copley, the wife of Bill Copley, heir to a publishing empire, sometime painter and short-lived dealer in Surrealist art. This exhibition, the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work, showcased over three hundred paintings, drawing and collages, from the full expanse of Ernst’s career, though Copley himself later deemed it ‘the greatest disaster’ for it opened on the same day as a rare snowstorm hit town (Copley, ‘Portrait of the artist as a young art dealer,’ in The William Nelson Copley Papers, 1948-1967, quoted in W. Spies, Max Ernst: Life and Work, An Autobiographical Collage, p. 219). A number of years later, the painting returned to Dorothea Tanning, and remained in her collection until her death in 2012.