Max Ernst conceived his vision of The Phases of the Night in 1946 as a complex, enigmatic, panoramic nocturnal landscape teeming with desert flora. A watchful owl-like creature, schematically composed of ovoid and circular forms, its wings outlined in the peak and trough of an oscillating wave, looms in the foreground. Imprinted with the distinctive tufted head of a horned owl is the builder’s plan of a simple house, centered on a pair of windows that open on the landscape to reveal the world beyond, but also a place within. An opening in the foliage reveals a broad, vast plain in the distance, where one discovers tiny dwellings and a bridge, bounded on the horizon by rolling hills that echo the wave-form in the foreground.
The multifaceted lunar orb, transfigured into an all-seeing eye, is also avian. Most intriguing of all, for the expert and novice mathematician alike—this is indeed a most extraordinary instance in modern art—Ernst has inscribed an equation comprising square roots, imaginary numbers, and an emblematic heart. These many diverse elements generate a multidimensional time-space continuum; finely incised straight-edge contours delineate a sequence of planes within the composition, like the individual frames that make up a moving picture. The result is nevertheless a simple heartfelt message, a valentine of sorts—this surrealist painter’s declaration of love for the woman in his life, whom he would soon marry.
“A very fortunate meeting, that with Dorothea Tanning,” Ernst wrote in his Biographical Notes for 1943 (W. Spies, Max Ernst: Life and Work, Cologne, 2005, p. 180). At the request of Peggy Guggenheim, then his third wife, Ernst had been on a scouting mission to find paintings by female artists in New York for an all-women show at her gallery Art of This Century, slated to open in early January 1943. Tanning had already shown work in Julien Levy’s gallery, where she and Ernst were briefly introduced to each other. Ernst called on her before Christmas, and admired her painting Birthday. Detecting an interest in chess, Ernst invited Tanning to sit down for a round. “Your game is promising,” he told her. “I could come back tomorrow, give you some pointers” (quoted in D. Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, New York, 2001, p. 64). Of course, he did return—the immediate chemistry between them seemed as promising as her game. Ernst was unhappy in his marriage with Guggenheim, which they had entered into all too quickly in 1941 following his arrival in New York from Nazi-occupied France. This arrangement opened doors for Ernst in New York, but romantically, he soon realized, it was a hopeless mistake.
Tanning would prove to be Ernst’s final abiding love. “It took only hours for him to move in,” she recalled. “There was no discussion. It was as if he had found a house. Yes, I think I was his house. He lived in me, he decorated me, he watched over me... He brought everything he had” (ibid., p. 65).
The landscape in The Phases of the Night is the American far west, with which Ernst first became acquainted just weeks after his arrival in New York in July 1941. Later that summer, Ernst and Guggenheim, together with Ernst’s son Jimmy (Guggenheim’s secretary) and her daughter Pegeen, flew to California. They returned to New York that fall via a cross-country journey in a Buick convertible, traversing the southwest and southern states. Ernst and Guggenheim married at the end of the year, soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December. Although Guggenheim was fully aware she was losing Ernst to Tanning, she did not stand in their way when the lovers left New York to spend the summer of 1943 at a dude ranch near Sedona, Arizona. Ernst described this locale in the continuation of his Biographical Notes for 1943:
“The ranch lay in a marvelous spot on the bank of a creek that, fed by the glaciers of the San Francisco Mountains, came rushing down through a canyon (a kind of replica of the Grand Canyon on a human scale [Oak Creek Canyon]) to lose itself in the burning deserts to the south. The first fascinating thing about the place was its abundance of colour—the intense red ochre of the soil and rocks, the delicate green of the huge, ‘snowing’ trees, the light blue of the cypresses, the pink bark of the Ponderosa pines. Then there were rock formations, which resembled a great variety of things and had thus been given names that were not always flattering (the nicest was ‘Cleopatra’s Bosom’); then the abundance and variety of wild animals—blue herons, wolverines, snakes with and without rattles, the Gila monster, antelope, wild horses, mountain lions, beavers, coyotes, cardinals, canaries, bluejays, roadrunners, etc... We were surprised to find that the humble village of Sedona (population 16) contained two excellent grocery stores where you could find anything, even the products of Hédiard” (W. Spies, op. cit., 2005, p. 180).
Ernst cultivated a proclivity for extreme landscapes, from the jungles of French Indochina, which he visited with Paul and Gala Éluard in 1924, to the deserts of the American southwest. The contrast, on one hand, of profuse foliage in a claustrophobically dark, damp jungle interior, and, on the other, of the lean, parched vegetation of a desolate desert wilderness, provided ideal, alternative primal settings for the machinations of this artist’s surrealist imagination.
Either environment lent itself to Ernst’s use of the use of the décalcomanie technique, as seen in the present painting. He picked up this inventive exercise in manipulating paint from Oscar Dominguez in 1938. Décalcomanie was not a new discovery, but had been overlooked and forgotten — Victor Hugo used this transfer process during 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 densely compacted organic matter and mineral forms.
Many surrealists dabbled in the technique simply to marvel at the bizarrely evocative shapes they could create so quickly, purely by accident. Ernst was the only artist to adopt décalcomanie, in conjunction with various kinds of brushwork and the use of the palette
knife, as a sustained method in painting with oils on canvas. Through concentrated practice he achieved a remarkable degree of control over this fundamentally unpredictable process. Since his arrival in America, Ernst had been painting one astonishing canvas after another using the décalcomanie technique, expanding the pictorial frontiers of his uniquely chimerical art.
Use of this method no doubt gave Ernst the edge when in 1945 he sent The Temptation of St. Anthony (Spies, no. 2487) to an international competition the Hollywood director Albert Lewin had organized to find the painting he would feature in his film adaptation of Maupassant’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Among submissions from Dalí, Delvaux, Tanning, and seven other invitees, Ernst’s canvas took the prize, with an award of $3,000. With this cash in hand, Ernst (for health reasons—the New York climate did not suit him) and Tanning returned to Sedona in 1946, purchased property from local landowner Charlie Brewer, and built a small two-room house made of wood and tarpaper, which they called Capricorn Hill. On 24 October, the two lovers married, in a dual ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner, in Beverly Hills.
The simple house plan in The Phases of the Night is the layout Ernst devised for Capricorn Hill, from which the artist gazed down on Oak Creek, Route 179, a few scattered houses and the valley scrub-land beyond. The more dramatic vista of cliff faces and buttes, usually seen in photographs, lay in a northerly direction.
“The innocence of country living held us in thrall,” Tanning wrote. “We cooked outdoors on stones, flaying desert twigs to get a blaze. Playing house, the artist’s way, in the crystal air, the charming weeds, the true mud... Imagine the pure excitement of living in such a place of ambivalent elements. Overhead a blue so triumphant it penetrated the darkest spaces of your brain. Underneath a ground ancient and cruel with stones, only stones, and cactus spines... It was then that you gave yourself up to that incredibly seductive wafture that, try as you might, you could never name. Its components? The red dust, the junipers, infinitesimal desert blooms, the stones. Even the stars shed perfume in their light when we watched them slide slowly across the sky” (D. Tanning, op. cit., 2001, pp. 143-145).
Ernst’s mathematical calculations provide the allegorical key to The Phases of the Night. As Lynn Gamwell has explained, “[Ernst] equates romance (the red heart) with an imaginary number, the square root of -1, which Ernst wrote as v-1. Seen by moonlight in the desert under the gaze of owl-like creatures, the imaginary realm is multiplied—the imaginary number is raised to the power of an imaginary number—and, to balance the equation, love also soars—the heart is raised to a power whose terms are love (the outlined heart) and a ‘couple’ (the 2). The title may allude to the phase of a wave or other rhythmic oscillation, since as a groom, Ernst would want the ‘phases of the night’ to be in sync” (op. cit., 2016, p. 475). Ernst also painted in 1946 a smaller preparatory study for The Phases of the Night, without the heart and equation, which he dedicated “A Dorothée” (Spies, no. 2507).
Following the end of the Second World War the surrealist artists and writers all returned from their exile in America to Europe. Living in remote Sedona, Ernst missed the camaraderie of the pre-war era.
Indigenous abstract expressionism, moreover, was gaining ground in New York, and would soon rival and upstage developments in contemporary French painting. Ernst understood that his art was better understood and more widely appreciated in France and the rest of Europe than in America.
“Paradise was indeed a somewhere not quite believable, or—can it be?—desirable,” Tanning wrote. “Were Adam and Eve really chased from the garden? Or did they leave?... We locked our flimsy door and left for France” (D. Tanning, op. cit., 2001, p. 157). “We are back in Paris,” Ernst wrote to his friend Joë Bosquet on 9 September 1949. “I’m home, I’m becoming myself again” (W. Spies, op. cit., 2005, p. 224).