Max Ernst’s The Stolen Mirror is a paysage animé, nominally cast in the classical convention of a landscape enlivened with figures and creatures of various kinds; it is moreover a surrealist tour-de-force, one of the artist’s finest works, which carries this genre into an entirely alien, phantasmagorical realm. As chimerical as many of the elements here may appear, Ernst’s technique imbues them with an uncannily convincing matter-of-fact existence, although not in any way we would normally recognise or comprehend. Here is the world that may be a beginning or an end, as it may have existed at the dawn of humanity, in mythical prehistory, or following some cataclysmic event at the end of time. Ernst’s vision is both transcendent and descendent: The Stolen Mirror is an enchanted world of symbols floating on an ether of dreams, in a state of perpetual metamorphosis; yet the artist’s vision also describes in lurid detail an overwhelmingly visceral, corporeal world that has given itself over to exacerbated processes of degeneration and decay. Ernst does not hesitate to strip away the exterior of certain figures or things to reveal the corruption of the familiar within, but elsewhere he tantalises by masking and covering them over, giving equal cause for apprehension. Here is a fairy tale world that even under the clear light of day seems to be slipping into an ever more sinister nightmare, where sensuality almost lovingly yields to cruelty, and the vital pulse of life hardens into petrifaction, like the nymph Daphne transformed into a laurel tree. Yet it is because of this lurking sense of menace that this painting is so temptingly enigmatic – even the title mystifies – and easily seduces the viewer into the blithe embrace of its decadent surreality. This may be the world as Ernst has envisioned it, but this is a place not so distant from one we each harbour and secretly nurture deep within ourselves, whether in the dreams of our sleep or in our waking fantasies.
Dating from 1941, The Stolen Mirror was painted at the high water mark of Ernst’s work during the early years of the Second World War, when the artist was creating one extraordinary picture after another using the decalcomania technique. He picked up this inventive exercise in manipulating paint from Óscar Domínguez in 1938. Decalcomania was not a new discovery, but had been overlooked and forgotten – Victor Hugo liked to use this transfer process in the mid-19th century to generate the imagery in his works on paper. The method is simple enough – using gouache or some other water-based medium, the artist spreads paint on a sheet of paper, then lays a second sheet on top of it, and after applying varying degrees of pressure, lifts the second sheet, which will bear the imprint of marbled, blotted, porous and grainy patterns of paint. The process can be repeated to create ever more intricate textures that resemble the appearance of organic matter and mineral forms. Many surrealists dabbled in the technique simply to marvel at the bizarrely evocative shapes they could quickly create by accident. Ernst was the only artist to adapt decalcomania in a sustained manner to painting in oils on canvas – he rarely employed this technique as an end in itself, he instead made it a systematic means of applying paint in conjunction with various kinds of brush work and the use of the palette knife. Through concentrated practice he became a master at decalcomania, and achieved a remarkable degree of control over this fundamentally unpredictable process. The results suggested new subjects and enabled Ernst to expand the parameters of this imaginary world. There was at that time no more freshly distinctive manner in surrealist painting, which increasingly set the quality and depth of Ernst’s work apart from almost all others. André Breton advocated this technique as a proper automatic approach to creativity, one that was not subject to conscious control, and he promoted the use of decalcomania as a bona fide surrealist alternative to Salvador Dalí’s use of quasi-academic trompe l’oeil techniques in rendering dream imagery in painting. The use of decalcomania provided a welcome boost to surrealist practice at a time when inspiration and inventiveness within the visual side of the movement had been noticeably on the wane.
Ernst began to apply the decalcomania technique by degrees, first in 1939 as tree forms (Spies, nos. 2330-2335) and then using it to create furred and feathered female figures (Spies, nos. 2336-2339), the most remarkable of which is L’Habillement de l’espousée (de la mariée), 1940 (Spies, no. 2361). However, it was in the landscape with figure paintings of 1940-1942 that Ernst most dramatically realised the full potential of this technique, which inspired him to create a new vision of the human presence in the world. His figures no longer bestride, surmount or hold sway over the landscape, but instead appear in the form of some mutant creature that has been generated from within the earth, and remains entirely subject to its chthonic origins. Ernst’s technique has the effect of composing every being, creature or thing in the world he has created from the very same substance, so that a human being is hardly distinguishable in its material from plant or beast. All belong to the earth from which they have sprung and are irrevocably fated to return. Ernst’s figures may rise up like tall monuments, but they are invariably dragged down, like weary prisoners, by the weight of their earthly, bestial and vegetal bodies, alive and sentient, but relentlessly decomposing before our eyes. The supposed superiority of human consciousness, social morality and the individual will count for very little in this realm of perpetually tormented existence: nothing, not even the human mind, separates us from everything else.
The production of the great decalcomania paintings of 1940-1942, more than thirty works in total, were almost all realised within the start and finish dates of the supreme masterpiece that Ernst painted during this period, Europe after the Rain II (Spies, no. 2395), which the artist began in France in the fall of 1940 and completed in America in 1942. The major landscape with figure paintings in this group are The Painter’s Daughters, 1940 (Spies, no. 2359), The Stolen Mirror, 1941, The Harmonious Breakfast in Santa Monica, 1941 (Spies, no. 2378), Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941 (Spies, no. 2382), and L’Antipape, 1941-1942 (Spies, no. 2391).
Most of Ernst’s landscape paintings suggest the large spaces of a timeless dimension by means of their width, undefined backgrounds, or the variously scaled monumentality of their forms, as seen in Europe after the Rain II. The artist normally viewed his landscape and figure subjects close-up in compositions that focus mainly on the fore- or middle-grounds. The Stolen Mirror stands apart from all other landscapes of this period in its extended depth of field, from foreground to horizon, emphasised here in the presence of the rampart-like structure that runs up and down the center of the picture, which becomes the port of entry for the viewer’s eye. The sense of distance which Ernst has created here betokens a journey, an invitation to a trip down the stone path, like a seaside causeway, which he has left open to us. This is the point at which The Stolen Mirror becomes indelibly tinged with autobiography, as Ernst recounts in a dream-like manner his personal odyssey from the Old World to the New.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 Ernst had been living with his paramour Leonora Carrington, an English-born painter, in an early 18th century farmhouse he had purchased and fixed up in the village of Saint-Martin-d’Ardêche. He never acquired French citizenship, and as a German national he was immediately interned when France and Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. He was released through the intercession of the poet Paul Eluard, only to be detained in camps again when Germany invaded France in May 1940. He escaped back to Saint-Martin, was denounced and taken away again. He got away a second time, just as he was being cleared for release. When he returned home he no longer possessed his farmhouse: Carrington, distraught over his disappearance, sold the farm, reputedly for a bottle of beer. She travelled to Spain, where her separation from Ernst increasingly unhinged her, and her family had her committed to a sanatorium in Santander.
In the meantime Ernst, alone and friendless in the French countryside, began Europe after the Rain II. With the defeat of France it was only a matter of time before German authorities, the dreaded Gestapo, would be on his trail. He had to leave the country as soon as possible. Ernst made his way to Marseille, where in December 1940 he joined a group of fellow artists and writers who were staying at the pension Bel Air, hopefully awaiting their visas and exit papers. Varian Fry, the chief representative in France of the Emergency Rescue Committee, had passed word to Ernst that Peggy Guggenheim, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Ernst’s son Jimmy, who had emigrated to the United States in 1938, were working to get him out of France.
When his papers finally came through several months later, Ernst headed for Spain, but was stopped at the French border by a stationmaster who believed the artist’s documents were not in order and confiscated his passport. The local customs men went through Ernst’s baggage and began to marvel at his paintings, some finished and others not, all rendered in the decalcomania technique. The suspicious stationmaster joined in their praise of Ernst’s work, and took the artist into his office. ‘Monsieur, I respect talent... you have great talent,’ he declared. ‘I admire that.’ He returned Ernst’s passport and directed him to the station platform where two trains were about to depart. ‘The first,’ the stationmaster told him, ‘is going to Spain, and the other to Pau, the next prefecture... Be careful not to take the wrong train’ (as told by Ernst in ‘Biographical Notes,’ quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1991, p. 319). Ten minutes later Ernst crossed the border into Spain, travelled to Madrid and then on to Lisbon, where émigrés boarded ships for the dangerous voyage to America. Along the way it became necessary to leave behind the unfinished Europe after the Rain II. Ernst wrapped up the canvas, wrote on the package ‘Max Ernst c/o The Museum of Modern Art, New York,’ and left it where someone was sure to find it.
Peggy Guggenheim arrived in Lisbon by plane with two return tickets in hand, and with Ernst flew back to New York. Jimmy Ernst greeted them when they arrived at La Guardia Airport on 14 July 1941. Ernst was now in the New World, and Europe after the Rain II was miraculously awaiting its creator at The Museum of Modern Art, having somehow made it to New York before the artist arrived. Ernst spent some time in detention, again as an enemy alien, on Ellis Island, where he had a grand view of the Statue of Liberty. He was released to the custody of Jimmy, but had to report to authorities whenever he left New York.
That summer Leonora Carrington arrived in New York. Back in Spain, while being transported to another institution, she slipped away from her guardian and made her way to the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, where she knew Renato Leduc, the ambassador, whom she soon married, thus freeing her from her family’s control. There she encountered Ernst as he was waiting to depart; the artist was still in love with her, and although they would meet, she refused to go back to him. When she arrived in New York bringing with her a cache of Ernst’s work, the situation was unchanged. Jimmy Ernst later wrote, ‘I don’t ever recall seeing such a strange mixture of desolation and euphoria in my father’s face when he returned from his first meeting with Leonora in New York. One moment he was the man I knew in Paris – alive, glowing, witty and at peace and then I saw in his face the dreadful nightmare that so often comes with waking. Each day that he saw her, and it was often, ended the same way... I was at a loss of how to help him’ (A Not-So-Still Life, New York, 1984, pp. 213-214).
Peggy Guggenheim, who had been in love with Ernst for some time, wanted to get him out of New York and away from Carrington. Guggenheim, her daughter Pegeen, Ernst and his son Jimmy flew to Los Angeles, where Guggenheim hoped to start a new gallery. They stayed in the home of Peggy’s sister, Hazel McKinley, in Santa Monica. Ernst set up his studio in an enclosed porch, and set to work on some unfinished paintings he had brought with him from France, as well as some new canvases.
Ernst is known to have painted Napoleon in the Wilderness in Santa Monica; depicting himself as the French emperor, with Leonora Carrington as his outsize female consort. Circumstantial evidence appears to indicate that The Stolen Mirror was also done that summer by the sea, or if it had been begun earlier in France, it was then completed or nearly so in Santa Monica. Both paintings are the only decalcomania landscapes with figures that show substantial bodies of water, a rare feature in Ernst paintings before this date. The long stone path in The Stolen Mirror may be likened to a beachside promenade, or even the Pacific Coastal Highway as it runs along the ocean at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains. The islands offshore may have been inspired by the sight of the Channel Islands from the beaches in Santa Monica. Ernst may have merged his recollections of the Statue of Liberty and the Staten Island Ferry in New York harbour to create the island in the water at far left.
While the landscape forms may reflect Ernst’s American surroundings, they stem predominantly from memories of an earlier journey, of the artist’s voyage to Indochina in 1924. The artist had then been engaged in an affair with Eluard’s wife Gala (who later married Dalí), with the poet’s knowledge, a ménage à trois. Eluard suddenly disappeared without warning from Paris in early 1924, having boarded a merchant steamer for a trip through the Panama Canal to Tahiti, ending up via Batavia in Singapore, from whence he sent word inviting Ernst and Gala to join him in Saigon, then French Indochina. Ernst and Gala departed from Marseille in mid-July, sailing on a regular passenger liner on an eastward route through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean. They met up with Eluard in Saigon as planned in mid-August.
While staying in Saigon, Gala reaffirmed her devotion to Eluard, with whom she sailed back to Paris in early September. Ernst remained alone in Saigon for another ten days, during which he visited the ancient Khmer royal city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Angkor left an indelible impression on Ernst, which shows up in the artist’s preoccupation with imagery of ruined cities being swallowed up by encroaching jungles, as seen in paintings for the next two decades. Ernst had the opportunity to revisit these memories and further study what he had seen, with the result that they were further engrained in his work, when the Khmer temples and statuary were recreated for the 1931 Paris Exposition Coloniale. The terraced statuary mounds in The Stolen Mirror, and especially the central roadway, which is derived from the central royal avenue in temple complex, may be traced to Ernst’s continuing fascination with Angkor.
The trio of surrealist sirens who flank the long stone path are likely representations of Peggy, closest in the right foreground, Leonora – wounded with an arrow – at left, and in the distance Ernst’s memory of Gala from the trans-oceanic journey of 1924, and his subsequent parting from her, a painful moment of loss and desolation he had recently relived in the end of his relationship with Leonora. Ernst may have considered Leonora to have been his ‘stolen’ love – his ‘stolen mirror’ – taken away by fate and circumstances, just as fifteen years before her, Gala had been taken from him as well. When Jimmy Ernst asked his father where the mirror in the painting was, Max Ernst simply replied, ‘It was stolen.’
That fall Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Pegeen and Jimmy loaded the artist’s paintings and their other belongings into a Buick convertible, and drove east, crossing the breadth of the American continent on their way back to New York. Ernst had his first glimpse of the American southwest, and encountered the Native American cultures whose art he later began to collect and cherish. The eroded sandstone steles and buttes that he would have seen in the deserts of the American Southwest have counterparts in The Stolen Mirror, where they have been a prescient feature, an intimation of sights yet to come, or elements he might have later painted in. The Stolen Mirror is stocked with mysterious, unknowable things, among which there is an ultimate conundrum: is the stone path a route waiting to be taken, as one steps into the future, or is it a road already taken, as the artist takes a long look into his past?
Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim in December 1941, an arrangement which gave him greater freedom to move about, oddly echoing Leonora Carrington’s situation. Ernst never re-united with his ‘stolen mirror’: in 1943 Carrington departed New York with her husband to continue her career as a painter in Mexico. The painting in which Ernst commemorated their love entered the collection of Edward James, the British devotee of surrealism, who was then living in New York. The Stolen Mirror eventually reverted to the Ernst family, as a possession of the artist’s son Jimmy and his wife Dallas.