This work will be included in the forthcoming eighth volume of the Max Ernst catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Werner Spies, Sigrid Mertken and Juergen Pech.
Painted in towards the end of 1920s, Les coquilles is a delicate example of one of Max Ernst's contributions to Surrealist painting. Perched on what appears to be the ocean floor, two lunar shells emerge under the greenish twilit sky as the first stars rise to greet them. It is a scene of primordial beauty - echoing the birth of Venus from a seashell - and the eternal cycle of life - evoking the ocean giving birth and then fossilising these marine creatures. The disproportions and juxtaposition of the elements, however, transpose this seemingly naturalistic setting into a dream-like realm, in which substance, space and meaning are ever shifting and changing. The inanimate meets the animate in the sculptural rendering of the sea, and in the biomorphic pulsations of the shells.
Looking at Les coquilles, and Ernst's other pictures of the time, it is hard to believe that, with André Breton's 1924 First Surrealist Manifesto, Surrealism was born as a largely literary movement. Towards the end of the 1920s a debate was opened on whether painting could have ever been a Surrealist medium. Collages and automatic drawings had already been added to the group's range of activities for uncontrolled expression, but oil painting - requiring technique and method - seemed to be at odds with the movement's escape from reason. In 1925, just as the Surrealist Pierre Naville rejected painting as a surrealist activity in La Révolution Surréaliste, Ernst discovered the frottage technique, by which, scraping on a paper with a pencil over a rough, usually natural surface, he was able to let unexpected images surface on the paper, placing the artist in a passive-receptive position. With works such as Les Coquilles, Ernst adapted this technique to oil painting, redeeming the medium for Surrealism. He painted his canvases in layers of tones, scraping them onto textured objects when still wet to reveal the multi-coloured depth of the paint, freeing unexpected patterns and figures onto the surface. Ernst would after manipulate these, in order to create a finished image that was the result of the encounter between chance and his subconscious.
Not only did Ernst's technique introduce chance to oil painting, but it also engendered new symbols in the artist's works. As the artist himself wrote in Tissue of Truth, Tissue of Lies, in 1928: 'Flowers appear. Shell flowers, feather flowers, crystal flowers, tube flowers, Medusa flowers' (M. Ernst, 'Biographical Notes. Tissue of Truth, Tissue of Lies', pp. 281-339, in Max Ernst, A Retrospective, exh. cat., London, 1991, p. 303). Les coquilles is an exquisite example of how these suggestive objects emerged from the delicate interaction of several layers of colours. Blending shades of green and lapis lazuli blue with moon-like greys and creamy tones, the work reveals the great colourist Ernst was. Unleashing oil painting to new unexpected effects, Les coquilles underlines the innovative force which propelled Ernst to the forefront of the Surrealist revolution in painting.