‘Flowers appear. Shell flowers, feather flowers, crystal flowers, tube flowers, Medusa flowers. All of his friends were transformed into flowers. All flowers metamorphosed into birds, all birds into mountains, all mountains into stars. Every star became a house and every house a city'
‘Each apparition is created by our sorcerer. He robs the meaning from every object in order to awake a reality in it’
Louis Aragon to Jacques Doucet, 1923
A beguiling, mysterious realm filled with bold colour and strange abstract forms, Max Ernst’s Ohne Titel (Muschelblumen) of 1928 belongs to the great series of ‘shell-flower’ or coquillage paintings that the artist had begun the same year. With these works, Ernst created fantastical compositions, which though abstract, have the distinct appearance of a natural landscape; boundless planes that are filled with strangely organic structures reminiscent of blossoming flowers, shells and geological rock formations. Using a combination of planes of bold colour together with amorphous, grattage scrapings of paint, in Ohne Titel (Muschelblumen) Ernst has invented an imaginary, near hallucinatory world, in which these multi-hued, seemingly natural forms, half shell, half flower, appear in a state of constant flux, metamorphosing into different forms, unfurling, blossoming and disappearing into the expansive blue beyond.
Begun in 1928, Ernst's 'shell-flower' paintings are one of the first unconscious flowerings of his newly discovered grattage technique. A development of frottage, the breakthrough automatic method that he had discovered in 1925, grattage involved applying several layers of different coloured oil paint to the canvas, which Ernst would then place over highly textured objects and scrape away the paint with a palette knife to reveal a kaleidoscope of colour and myriad patterns in whatever shapes he chose. The unpremeditated, semi-conscious patterns and textures that these scrapings produced sparked Ernst’s visionary imagination. Realising that they were evocative of strange clam-like flowers, or shells, he began to build his compositions around these bizarre biological forms. To emphasise the texture of these shapes, Ernst would often set them against flat areas of colour. In Ohne Titel (Muschelblumen), the deep red of the lower half and rich turquoise of the upper canvas evokes a definite sense of land and sky, earth and air; conjuring a primeval vision of a world that exists somewhere between the conscious and unconscious, populated with unknown, hydridic forms.
Ernst described the sudden flowering of this motif in his work, writing in his biographical notes of 1928:
'Flowers appear Shell flowers, feather flowers, crystal flowers, tube flowers, Medusa flowers. All of his friends were transformed into flowers. All flowers metamorphosed into birds, all birds into mountains, all mountains into stars. Every star became a house and every house a city' (Ernst, 'Biographical Notes: Tissue of Truth, Tissue of Lies' in Max Ernst, exh. cat., London, 1991, p. 303). André Breton, the self-appointed leader of Surrealism would also write of Ernst’s new series the same year: ‘…It is the time of serpents, earthworms, feather flowers, shell flowers, bird flowers, animal flowers, tube flowers. It is the time when the forest takes wing and flowers struggle under water’ (A. Breton, ‘Le Surréalisme et la Peinture’, Paris, 1928, quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat. New York, 1961, p. 15).
Far from the dark, foreboding or threatening visions that Ernst had created in his ‘Forest’ series, the otherworldly ‘shell-flower’ landscapes are both strange and infinitely beautiful. There is a dramatic romanticism inherent in these paintings, conjured from the painterly juxtapositions and vibrant colours, as well as from the overt prettiness of the blossoming forms that fill the composition. It has been suggested that this beguiling, almost primeval beauty was a reflection of Ernst’s personal happiness at this time. Finally able to dedicate himself solely to art, Ernst was settled with his new wife Marie-Berthe Aurenche, in Meudon, just outside Paris. Ernst had met the young Marie-Berthe shortly after she had left her convent tuition the previous year and amidst great controversy and her parents’ outrage, carried her off to be his bride. He was of course supported in his actions by his Surrealist friends who were always ready to champion the cause of l'amour against the moral strictures of French society.