Today’s post comes from Sophie Asakura, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.

Max Ernst (German, 1891-1976), The Lady Hears a Nightingale, 20th c. Decalcomania and oil on canvas. Gift of Leon M. and Marian H. Despres (Marian H. Alschuler, class of 1930). 2003.22.2.

In Max Ernst’s 1940s work The Lady Hears a Nightingale, sticky, spidery forms of green algal growth seem to blanket the composition. The growth creeps across the canvas, permeated subtly by a cubist figure. The figure is loosely human, with arms and a face; however, it is segmented into rigid pieces made of irregular polygons softly rubbed onto the medium. Her eyes, one red and one white, pierce through the green overgrowth and gaze toward her right hand, which is extended upward. Although a representation of the human form is clearly identifiable, it does not feel deliberate. The forms seem to have grown organically onto the canvas like a living thing or an outgrowth. Linear geometry and spongy natural forms meld seamlessly together to form a fantastical scene.

Ernst was a renowned German artist, prominent in the Dada and Surrealist movements in the 20th century. Integral to the project of Surrealist art is creating from the subconscious. In 1925, Ernst developed a technique called frottage, which he created as an automatic and random approach to drawing. Frottage involves making a rubbing of a textured surface and was utilized in The Lady Hears a Nightingale to create the body of the woman. For the background, he used another technique of chance called decalcomania in which paint is applied by first spreading it on paper and then pressing it to the canvas. Ernst was deeply interested in allowing his subconscious to manifest in his work and believed that one way to accomplish this was by creating a random form, through techniques of chance (such as frottage and decalcomania) and then allowing this randomly generated form to serve as a catalyst or jumping off point from which to create the rest of the work. Thus, it makes sense that this painting should feel autonomous: Ernst allowed it to have life of its own instead of controlling the details.

Upon laying down the original geometric forms, Ernst pulled the female form forward from the abstract. The unique, dripping and fungal green and blue paint adds to the organic origins of the work by recalling natural forms. Combined within a relatively small composition, the elements create an intense dreamscape that joins the geometric and organic.