Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Elephant Celebes Combines Dada, Surrealism and Collage in One

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921

Max Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes is a renowned work of early Surrealism and exemplifies Ernst’s combination of Surrealist atmosphere with the influence of Dada and collage techniques. In this article, Singulart takes a look at Max Ernst’s life and career and analyses the meaning and the techniques behind The Elephant Celebes.  

Who was Max Ernst?

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a key figure of the Dada and Surrealist movements in the early 20th century. Born in Bruhl, near Cologne, he studied philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, art history and literature at the University of Bonn. During his studies he visited asylums and developed a fascination with the art created by the patients. It was at this point that he also began to paint, sketching from nature and painting portraits of his sister and self-portraits. In 1912, he experienced the works of Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin for the first time at an exhibition in Cologne which had a huge influence on him. He began to exhibit his work with the Das Junge Rheinland group the same year, with his paintings of this time characterised by grotesque imagery mixed with Cubist and Expressionist motifs. In 1914, Ernst met the artist Hans Arp in Cologne and they developed a long lasting and collaborative friendship. 

 Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921
Max Ernst

Just after Ernst finished his studies, World War I broke out and he was conscripted and served on the Western and Eastern Fronts. In 1918, he returned to Cologne and married Luise Straus, an art history student he had met before the war. The following year, along with the artist Paul Klee, he studied the paintings of Giorgio de Chrico in Munich, which would have a profound effect on the development of Ernst’s style and technique, most specifically his experiments with collage. Along with activist Johannes Theodor Baargeld and other avant-garde figures, Ernst founded the Dada group in Cologne in the same year. In 1921 he met Paul Eluard, with whom he formed a life-long friendship and who bought many of Ernst’s works, including The Elephant Celebes. 

In 1922, having failed to obtain the necessary paperwork, Ernst moved to France illegally, leaving his wife and son behind in Germany, and lived with Eluard and his wife in Paris. 

During this time Ernst developed an alter-ego character in his painting, inspired by his fascination with birds which he named “Loplop”. In 1927 he married Marie-Berthe Aurenche and it is thought their relationship inspired the erotic subject matter that was prevalent in his work at the time. In 1934, Ernst learnt to sculpt with Alberto Giacometti, continuing his autodidactic approach to his artistic education. In 1938 he met the American heiress and patron Peggy Guggenheim, who bought many of Ernst’s works and exhibited them in London. 

Max Ernst and Marie Berthe Aurenche, portrait by Man Ray, 1930

After the outbreak of World War II, Ernst was sent to a camp for “undesirable foreigners” in Aix-en-Provence along with fellow German artist Hans Bellmer, however he was released a few weeks later thanks to the intervention and testimonies of friends Paul Eluard, Varian Fry and others. He was later arrested by the Gestapo during the German Occupation of France but escaped with the help of Peggy Guggenheim and fled to America. Guggenheim and Ernst were married from 1942 to 1946. His arrival in New York coincided with that of many other European artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall, and his work was an inspiration on Abstract Expressionism. Soon after the end of his marriage to Peggy Guggenheim, he married the artist Dorothea Tanning in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in California and the couple moved to Sedona, Arizona where they lived and worked until 1953, inspired by the desert landscapes. In 1954, Ernst won the Grand Prize for painting at the Venice Biennale. He died in Paris in 1976, having finally obtained both French and American citizenship and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. 

What is happening in The Elephant Celebes? 

The Elephant Celebes is one of Ernst’s most famous works of early Surrealism and exemplifies his combination of an ethereal, surrealist atmosphere with elements of Dada collage. The influence of Giorgio de Chirico on Ernst and the Surrealists can be seen in The Elephant Celebes in his use of color and space. 

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921

The Elephant Celebes depicts a central elephant-like shape, derived from the form of a Sudanese corn bin, which Ernst saw in an anthropological journal and transformed into a mechanical monster. Ernst’s transformation of recycled imagery into new disturbing forms makes the composition even more sinister as it is linked to real life. The other elements in the composition, namely the decapitated female figure, the flying fish, the mechanical appearance of the central figure and the plant to the right, all contribute to the dark dreamlike atmosphere of the painting and demonstrate the influence of Freud and free association on Ernst and the Surrealists. The low horizon line emphasizes the size of the central figure and the decapitated figure wears a surgical glove, a common symbol employed by the Surrealists. The flying fish also have a mechanical air about them and could be confused with airplanes, symbolizing the terror Ernst associated with his experience in the war and its profound effect on his works. Ernst stated: “On the 1st of August 1914 Max Ernst died. He was resurrected on the 11th of November 1918 as a young man who aspired to find the myths of his time.” Thus it would seem the The Elephant Celebes represents the myth of destruction that was certainly a part of his time. 

The Elephant Celebes, Surrealist collage and Other Techniques 

Max Ernst never received any formal artistic training and thus he is renowned for his experimental techniques, many of which revolve around collage. In The Elephant Celebes he simulates this effect to create the illusion of a variety of textures, contributing to the dream-like atmosphere. Ernst described the technique of collage, stating: “It is the systematic exploitation of the coincidental or artificially provoked encounter of two or more unrelated realities on an apparently inappropriate plane and the spark of poetry created by the proximity of these realities.”

See work by similar artists in Singulart’s Inspired by Max Ernst collection.

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