MAX ERNST (1891-1976) Tremblement de terre printanier 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm) (Painted in 1964)

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Lot 24
Tremblement de terre printanier 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm)

Sold for US$ 1,147,500 inc. premium

Impressionist & Modern Art

16 Nov 2016, 16:00 EST

New York

MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
Tremblement de terre printanier
signed and dated 'max ernst 64' (lower right)
oil on canvas
51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm)
Painted in 1964


  • Provenance
    The artist's studio.
    Dorothea Tanning, by inheritance from the above.
    Thence by descent to the present owner.

    Paris, Galerie Alexander Iolas, Max Ernst Cap Capricorne, 22 May-14 June 1964, no. 9.
    New York, The Elkon Gallery, Max Ernst, Sunsets and Twilight (The Postwar Years), 1 November 1989 - 20 June 1990, p. 11 (illustrated in color).
    New York, Cavaliero Fine Arts, Homage to Max Ernst, 10 December 1991 - 1 February 1992.

    E. Quinn, Max Ernst, New York, 1977, illustrated p. 356-357.
    W. Spies and S. and G. Metken, and J. Pech, Max Ernst, werke 1964-1969, Cologne, 2007, no. 3836 (illustrated, and titled Trois tremblements de terre).

    Tremblement de terre printanier is from a small group of large format paintings by Max Ernst that were exhibited at Galerie Alexander Iolas in Paris in 1964. John Russell, in discussion with the artist, saw the significance of this group: '1964 produced a group of large canvases in which the image was as if penciled or engraved upon a ground in which one color strove to break through another. Sometimes ... the picture was as near as not to a pure pale monochrome ground on which the image was faintly incised. At other times the colored ground seemed to shift back and forth, now following the incised line, now pulling against it, the series as a whole represents a renewal of Max Ernst's creative impulse and a farewell to the intimisme of the years before.' (J. Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work, London, 1967, pp. 177-78).

    The privately-printed catalogue of the Iolas exhibition, itself part of the all-encompassing artwork, accompanies each illustration with Ernst's characteristically sibylline verse. The present painting is paired with 'Voici trois tremblements de terre/ Un printanier/ Un triste/ Un clandestin' ('Here are three earthquakes: One spring-like, One sad, One hidden'). The handlist for the exhibition allows us to identify the specific title of the present work as Tremblement de terre printanier: despite Ernst's usual relaxed attitude to connecting titles to compositions it is tempting to read into the work a feeling for tectonic shifts in the deep, of a lush world choked with the vegetation of verdant spring in which mysterious forces might lurk, analogous to the mysterious forest of his early works and his German heritage. This contrasts with the companion piece Tremblement de terre clandestin (Caspar H. Schübbe Collection, Switzerland; W. Spies, op. cit., p. 3, no. 3832), in which the tightly braced surface lives up to its secretive name. A third work from the group, Le ciel épouse la terre (Menil Collection, Houston; W. Spies, op. cit., p. 4, no. 3835) continues the theme of great forces of nature standing in for the hidden currents of the subconscious. In these works Ernst combines impressive scale with an overtly physical technique utilizing grattage, scraping away at the canvas in a manner which recalls the act of mining or excavation.

    Grattage was one of Ernst's most innovative gifts to the evolution of Twentieth Century Art. Essentially the application of the frottage technique for works on paper to painting on canvas, grattage allows the introduction of found and chance effects into the traditional picture space.

    Ernst's technique involved stretching a loose canvas covered with a thin layer of pigment over textured surfaces such as woodgrain, wire or stone. Scraping through the paint surface with a spatula or palette knife reveals random patterns and ghostly traces of form which can be manipulated into the composition. This technique lends itself to the closer examination of natural forms, and although Ernst was never a landscape painter as such broad panoramas became in increasing part of his oeuvre. Although surreal in effect, grattage was 'ultimately derived from nature itself, [and] gave rise to landscape visions which, thanks to their partial imitation of the growth patterns and textures of paint, evoked nature far more intensely than the traditional techniques of realism' (K. von Maur in W. Spies (ed.), Max Ernst: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 343).

    The present work shows at least two campaigns of grattage. Striations in the dark blue-black ground show that the canvas has been stretched and crumpled over the grain of wooden boards, giving an impression of deep geological strata. Over this the artist has lain a slip in a lighter turquoise green. Then either with the butt of the brush or by laying the canvas over coiled rope he has drawn or scraped through twisting contours that build the composition to show the darker tones underneath, adding highlights in lighter blue or yellow.

    Although apparently random, this technique is in fact tightly structured. The composition is not left to chance but built using the inspiration of an existing element or memory and with aid of 'found' elements along a carefully planned framework. Ernst stated, perhaps surprisingly, that among the European artists in New York during World War II he felt a closer affinity with the rigorous compositions of Piet Mondrian than with his fellow surrealists. Grattage and an understanding of the physicality of painting was also his gift to the rising generation of American artists working in New York. Jackson Pollock attributed to Ernst in part the inspiration for his drip technique, which grew from conversations between the two artists. Barnett Newman also took from him, as John Golding noted: 'In 1946 Newman was quite literally using scraping techniques, coupled with taking rubbings of textured surfaces pressed to the reverse side of the canvas. These techniques, 'grattage' and 'frottage', were dear to the Surrealists and Newman's brief adoption of them perhaps ultimately represents his greatest debt to the expatriate French movement. The Command, of 1946 [now Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel], for example, reads almost as a textbook demonstration of them: 'grattage' or scraping to the left, 'frottage' or rubbing to the right. These two main compositional areas are separated by the white vertical of virgin or lightly stained canvas, achieved by the laying on of masking tape to isolate or separate the two larger areas awaiting the application of texture. Already the narrow vertical or ray was becoming a dominant motif for Newman (J. Golding, Paths to the Absolute, London, 2000, p. 191).

    Although he had explored the possibilities in previous works, notably 100,000 Doves (1924; Private Collection), in Tremblement de terre printanier Ernst demonstrates that the flow of influence from the rising generation of the New York School went both ways. The use of scale, with an 'all-over' composition with a decentralized picture plane devoid of illusionistic tendencies or Cubist tricks, were all learnt in response to the evolution of Abstract Expressionism.
MAX ERNST (1891-1976) Tremblement de terre printanier 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm) (Painted in 1964)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976) Tremblement de terre printanier 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm) (Painted in 1964)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976) Tremblement de terre printanier 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm) (Painted in 1964)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976) Tremblement de terre printanier 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in (130 x 162 cm) (Painted in 1964)
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