Tumbling from the canvas and into the viewer's world, the woman in La fuite, painted in 1940, appears full of panic and abandon. The shocking red of her dress adds a sense of violence to the picture, while the strange, non-descript organic form in the right appears to be some strange and otherwordly emanation, an invading and alien presence that adds to the general sense of wrongness with which La fuite is packed.
Max Ernst could not paint on a blank canvas. He needed some form of visual prompt, and would use the suggestive shapes of random forms to guide him to the creation of the vision lodged in his subconscious and gradually lured onto the canvas. The dense, almost vegetal forms that are so evident in the woman's dress and the form in the right are the results of a particular process that Ernst used called decalcomania. This involved applying paint to the canvas with a large flat surface, often a sheet of glass. The strange shapes and chance designs that this impression would leave were then slowly tweaked and hewn by Ernst, who would use any sense of their suggestive shapes to guide him in creating the final image. This process, and the strange iconography that it often produced, were both legacies of Ernst's life during the early years of the Second World War. As a German living in France, he was interned at the outbreak of war, and in one of the camps to which he was sent he found his friend and fellow artist Hans Bellmer. The pair experimented extensively with the decalcomania techniques, which had initially been introduced by Oscar Domínguez, but it was Ernst who truly made it his own. The organic forms and the extensive iconography that he created resulted in some of the most striking and atmospheric works of his entire career.
In La fuite, two very different results of the decalcomania technique appear, the first helping to create the dress, and the second in the form of the strange and sinister emanation that appears at the right. In many works, Ernst allowed the dense and richly worked texture that appears in the right here to dominate most of the canvas, however in La fuite he has limited it, creating an intriguing interplay of textures and elements. Likewise, he has allowed the very simply worked backgrounds to remain far less articulated, creating a more extreme contrast between the woman and the organic form, and the rest of the picture. Ernst has used this technique to make them seem like apparitions in an otherwise relatively normal pictorial world consisting of walls, window, floor and door. This simplicity increases the drama, tension and sense of movement of the picture's fleeing protagonist.
One of the chief elements that frequently appeared in Ernst's iconography during this period was the figure of a dark-haired woman. This represented Leonora Carrington, Ernst's lover and an artist in her own right. Indeed, Carrington was one of only a handful of women to be recognised in the predominantly male Surrealist circle. This was all the more impressive as she was still a young art student, but with very strong ideas. Even before being introduced to Ernst in London by their mutual friends the Goldfingers, Carrington had been intrigued by Ernst's art and vision.
The pair quickly became a couple, and had been living together in a remote farmhouse until the outbreak of war. Their life there had been simple and idyllic, the pair besotted with each other and Ernst managing to work extensively, not least on the decoration of the house itself. However, it is a reflection of the troubles to come that he would later refer to 1939 as 'A Moment of Calm', as the next year their worlds fell apart. Although during his first internment, the couple had managed to see each other, this became increasingly difficult. Eventually, Ernst managed to evade his captors and returned to his farmhouse to find that it had been abandoned (actually sold by Carrington, who had no title to it in the first place), and that she had fled after a nervous breakdown. Although he did not know at the time, this breakdown had led to her being admitted to a mental hospital in Santander.
Carrington's flight marked Ernst heavily, and his elusive lover began to feature in new ways in his work. In La fuite, there is a mingled sense of the panic, of the necessity of flight, and yet there is a sense that the artist was visualising his own abandonment. He has filled the figure with the same ambiguity with which he was racked, ignorant as he was of the motives behind her disappearance. While the expression on her face can be seen as panic or fear, it is also marked by a hint of ecstasy, rapture or orgasm. Likewise, her tattered dress, which in parts appears to blend with the flesh, is ripped and shaped enough to make the flesh underneath extremely prominent. If the woman were horizontal instead of vertical, her outstretched arms, thrown back head and the amount of flesh would lead the viewer to conclude that there was little of flight or fear at all. Even in this vertical form, there is a sense that Carrington is partaking in some abandoned dance as much as she is running from whatever spectre chases her.
The decalcomania technique had particular implications in Ernst's art when the pictures came to concern Leonora Carrington, as the strange shapes and textures that would appear were reminiscent of the rock formations near the house in Ardèche. Ernst and Carrington often enjoyed exploring the strange caves and grottos in the area, and in them saw nature's own answer to and attempt at the decalcomania technique. The 'emanation' at the back of La fuite can therefore be seen as an incarnation of those rocks, with Carrington all the more explicitly fleeing Ardèche in Ernst's fevered imagining of the scene.
Fate had further blows in store for the couple. When they eventually saw each other again in New York, each had married, essentially using these marriages as tickets out of Europe. Carrington had married an influential Mexican journalist called Renato Leduc, and although it is claimed that this marriage was of convenience, she moved with him to Mexico, where she remained even after their divorce. Meanwhile, Ernst had famously married Peggy Guggenheim, but on seeing Carrington again, his head was sent spinning, a fact that Guggenheim herself recognised. This is a reflection of the intensity of the relationship that Carrington and Ernst had shared, and within a short time each had sought solace far from New York, finally fleeing each other.