Having been interned by the French authorities as a German national after the outbreak of the Second World War and subsequently sought by the Nazi Gestapo after the German occupation of France, Max Ernst left Europe and arrived in the United States in 1941, where he was at first detained again as an enemy alien. He thereafter began a productive nine-year stay in America, but his exhibitions there met with little success. He married the collector and dealer Peggy Guggenheim in 1941, and in 1943 commenced a relationship with the American painter Dorothea Tanning, whom he married in 1946. They bought property and built a house in Sedona, in the Arizona desert, where they had previously vactioned. Ernst became an American citizen in 1948, but returned to France in 1950 to revive his reputation in Europe, taking up French citizenship in 1958. He continued to spend part of the year on his property in Sedona, and in 1964, the year in which the present painting was done, he found a suitable house in Seillans in the south of France, and settled there with Tanning.
Ernst turned 70 in 1961, and there were retrospectives in New York, Paris, London, Cologne and Zurich over the course of the next three years. The experience of seeing such large bodies of his past work may have induced him to explore in alternative directions, because new tendencies became apparent in his painting during the early 1960s. Instead of placing his imagery in a deep, illusionistic space, or using geometry or elements of cubism to compose the picture plane, Ernst increasingly adopted the practice of American postwar abstraction in treating the canvas as an absolutely flat surface on which the artist posited marks or signs. This may also reflect the impact of the artist's cumulative experience of the vast and desolate spaces of the American West, with which he had become closely familiar during the past two decades, and deeply loved.
The route to this new sense of flatness and a decentralized, "all-over" composition came by way of techniques that he developed in the 1920's--collage and frottage. He collected border-strips of wallpaper and other flat objects in local markets, which he attached to flat, painted surfaces, creating a series of large, elegantly composed panel collages that form an interesting counterpart to Robert Rauschenberg's rougher and more sprawling combine paintings. He further developed his method of frottage, the practice of creating an impression of the texture and configuration of a flat object by placing it beneath the paper sheet and rubbing the surface with charcoal or pencil. He invented this technique in 1925, and had already adapted it to painting on canvas, which entailed "the scraping of pigments upon a ground prepared in colors and placed on an uneven surface" (from "On Frottage", trans. D. Tanning, in H.C. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 429). This practice is also related to the technique of intaglio etching, in which the artist incises the image through a thin coat of the etching ground applied to a metal plate. Around the time of present painting, Ernst was working on his etchings for the book Maximiliana, ou L'exercise illégal de l'astronomie (published in Paris, 1964; W. Spies, Max Ernst, Das Graphische Werk, no. 95), and the use of the etcher's needle may have once again suggested to the artist the idea of scraping the canvas.
La vie des animaux was done by preparing the entire canvas with a yellow ground, and then applying a coat of blue paint over it. The canvas was then placed painted side up over what appears to be pieces of wire mesh. Ernst then scraped away the still wet blue paint, revealing the grid of the wire mesh in a ghostly light-greenish yellow pattern. The contours of the bird shapes were then drawn into the drying painted surface.
Ernst had utilized animal imagery, and bird forms especially, throughout his career, from his earliest pre-surrealist paintings. In Ernst's conception the animal world stands apart from our own, pure and free from the folly of human ambition, and serves as a dream-like memory of a paradise lost. Ernst wrote:
The world throws off its cloak of darkness, it offers to our horrified and enchanted eyes the dramatic spectacle of its nudity, and we mortals have no choice but to cast off our blindness and greet the rising suns, moons and sea levels: Be it with awe and controlled emotion, as with the Indians of North America, corralled into their reserves, Be it with song, sonority and music-making by such as the blackbird, thrush, finch and starling (and the whole host of poets) (quoted in Histoire naturelle, Cologne, 1965).