Between 1919 and 1920, Max Ernst was one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the Dada movement in Cologne. Before long, he attracted the attention of André Breton, who in 1921 organized an exhibition in Paris of Ernst's collages. By 1922, Ernst had moved to the French capital, and never again worked in his native country. In 1924, in Paris, the thirty-three-year-old artist became one of the founding members of the Surrealist group.
Ernst's Surrealist paintings are steeped in Freudian metaphor, private mythology, and childhood memories. One of his major themes centered on the image of the bird, which often incorporated human elements. Although some of these birds look benign, their mere presence appears to be ominous. He first coupled birds and windblown, apocalyptic animals in a series of small works entitled The Horde (1927), and he resumed the theme in 1935 in a series of even smaller paintings called The Barbarians, to which the present one belongs. In his biography of the artist, John Russell identified these creatures as expressions of Ernst's fearful anticipation of the impending devastation in Europe during World War II.
In this small painting, a gigantic, malevolent-looking bird couple marches forward with seemingly mile-long strides. The dark female leads the way as her male companion turns to look at the strange animal-perhaps their offspring-clinging to his left arm. In the far distance, a tiny woman holds onto some undefined winged being. The strange patterns on the bodies of the main figures, which evoke fossils or geological formations, are the result of grattage (scraping). In this technique, the artist coated the canvas, or in this case, a piece of cardboard, with layers of paint and while it was still wet pressed it against objects that left imprints on the surface. Afterward, he used a brush to touch up the forms thus created, or scraped away layers of pigment.
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed (on reverse): Max Ernst 1937/ borbares
John Davenport, London; Sir Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell, London (possibly by 1952–75; sold on April 8, 1975 through the Redfern Gallery, London to Beyeler); [Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1975; stock no. 8552; sold in November 1975 to private collection]; private collection, Mülheim, Germany (from 1975); [Galerie Beyeler, Basel, from October 1988; stock no. 11557]; Natasha Gelman, Mexico City and New York (1989–d. 1998; her bequest to MMA)
London. Mayor Gallery. "Surrealist Paintings by Max Ernst," June 1937, no. 19 or 20 (as "Barbares," listed for sale) [probably this picture].
London. Institute of Contemporary Arts. "Max Ernst," December 10, 1952–January 24, 1953, no. 41 (as "Borbéres," lent by a private collection).
Christie's, London. "Fanfare for Europe: The British Art Market 1973," January 4–11, 1973, no. 58 (as "Barbares," lent by Redfern Gallery).
Kunsthalle Darmstadt. "Realismus und Realität," May 24–July 6, 1975, no. 11.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Twentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," December 12, 1989–April 1, 1990, unnumbered cat. (p. 198).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Twentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," April 19–July 15, 1990, unnumbered cat.
Berkeley. University Art Museum, University of California. "Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art," October 3–December 30, 1990, unnumbered cat. (pl. 1; as "Barbarians [Barbares]," lent by the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection).
Mexico City. Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo. "La Colección de Pintura Mexicana de Jacques y Natasha Gelman," June 23–October 11, 1992, not in catalogue.
Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "De Matisse à Picasso: Collection Jacques et Natasha Gelman," June 18–November 1, 1994, unnumbered cat. (p. 222).
Werner Spies, Sigrid Metken, and Günter Metken, ed. "Werke 1929–1938." Max Ernst: Oeuvre-Katalog. Houston, 1979, p. 375, no. 2278, ill., as "Barbares".
Sabine Rewald inTwentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Ed. William S. Lieberman. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1989, pp. 198–200, 299, ill. (color and bw).
William S. Lieberman inTwentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Ed. William S. Lieberman. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1989, p. 16.
David Lewis. "Fascist-Surrealist and Oedipal-Alchemical Identities in Max Ernst's The Barbarians." PART: Journal of the CUNY PhD Program in Art History. Vol. 11, 2003, fig. 1 (color).