et les papillons se mettent à chanter / and the butterflies begin to sing
Inv. No. 16835 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)
16.3 × 14.8 cm
The year 1929 saw the publication in Paris of La femme 100 têtes, the first collage novel by Max Ernst. The ambiguity of the book’s French title when heard and not seen – it could mean »the woman with a hundred heads« or »the woman without a head« – corresponds to the obscurity of its content: it is made up of nine chapters and comprises a total of 147 printed pictures, many of which are considered among the »incunabula« of Surrealism. The designs for the illustrations included et les papillons se mettent à chanter, a collage of highly individual character and outstanding expressive power.
Lured out of the darkness, a swarm of moths and small insects flutter around a burning gas lamp. There is something baneful about the symbiosis of the artificial light source with its characteristic hissing noise and the »singing butterflies«. However, these melancholy goings-on in the foreground are not the only thing revealed by the bright light. The latter also illuminates large parts of an architectural ensemble that is integrated into the scene in keeping with the laws of perspective: gruesome catacombs with skeletons leaning out of them in grotesquely erect poses.
To produce this surreal memento mori, Max Ernst carefully and skilfully combined details of two pictures taken from very different sources. A type of wood engraving produced in vast numbers in the nineteenth century for use as illustrations supplied him with plentiful material for his increasingly complex collage novels. Largely superseded in the twentieth century by photographic reproductions, this pictorial material interested the artist not only because of its graphic structures but also – and primarily – on account of the comprehensive range of motifs it offered. Taking innumerable fragments from this stimulating diversity of images, Ernst exhibited a great amount of technical bravura in shaping them into extraordinarily paradoxical units of surrealist poetry.
The method employed here is unlike the artistic process of papier collé practised by the Cubists – who had been combining painted surfaces of colour with glued-on materials since about 1912 – in that Max Ernst’s preoccupations always went beyond matters of form and composition. His concern in the execution of his collages was to create a synthesis between profoundly unconnected realities. This principle first shows itself in his Dadaist montages, is reflected in the frottages he »discovered« in 1925 and is also applied in his paintings. The considerable influence that his method exerted on the further development of art in the twentieth century is discernible, for instance, in the Large Head by Sigmar Polke.
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