As its proud inscription written in English on the back of the work declares, this exquisite untitled decalcomania painting was made by Ernst in France, shortly before his escape from Europe to America in the spring of 1941. Ernst had discovered the technique of decalcomania - first pioneered by Óscar Domínguez in 1935 - while imprisoned as an enemy alien in France alongside fellow German Surrealist Hans Bellmer, after the outbreak of war in 1939.
The decalcomania technique, which involves first covering a surface with a thinned layer of oil paint and then pressing onto it with a flat surface such as pane of glass before pulling it off again to reveal a random myriad pattern of form and colour, had proved a revelation for Ernst. Over the next few years he would use it to create many of his finest and best-loved works. As is clearly illustrated in this work with its strange image of transformation, out of the fluid random patterning of colour provided by this technique, Ernst’s ever-active imagination divined strange figures, vegetation and mythical beings magically emerging - like spectres from his own unconscious - from the apparently chaotic patterns of form.
Moreover, it was works such as these that appeared to have saved the artist’s life when he escaped from internment in the spring of 1941. The story is recorded in Ernst’s ‘Biographical Notes’ for the year 1941: ‘Difficulties in leaving France. When he arrived in Campfranc on the Spanish border, the French Stationmaster, whose job it was to check the validity of exit visas, pointed out that the visa Max had …[was]…somewhat dubious…and had expired anyway. He confiscated Max’s passport. Max nevertheless went into the Spanish customs room and opened his luggage. The suspicious customs officials demanded that he open a package that he had carefully laid aside up to then. It contained paintings of various sizes, some rolled up, some on stretchers. Thank heavens they were of the decalcomania variety. They all had a quite respectable appearance - carefully executed, mostly in dark colours. A show was rapidly improvised in the customs room. ‘Bonito, bonito!’ the customs officers enthused… Now there was only the (French) Stationmaster to convince. He requested Max to come into his office. There he told him, ‘Monsieur, I respect talent. Monsieur, you have great talent. I admire that.’ He gave him his passport back and led him out to the platform, where two trains were waiting. ‘The first,’ he said, ‘is going to Spain, and the other to Pau, the next prefecture.’ And then he added, ‘Be very careful not to take the wrong train.’ Then he sauntered back to his office without giving his passenger another look. Max Ernst followed the stationmaster’s advice, which he had not dared to give him openly - he took the wrong train, and ten minutes later was in Spain, on the way to Madrid and Lisbon’ (Max Ernst, ‘Biographical Notes’, in W. Spies, Max Ernst: Life and Work, London, 2005, p. 158).