Max Ernst, ‘Oiseau-tête (Bird-Head)’, 1934/35, Fondation Beyeler

Many people think of Max Ernst first and foremost as a painter, but he also produced a number of sculptures. He said of this practice: “When I come to a dead end with my painting, which always happens, sculpture remains a way out for me, since sculpture is more of a game than painting. With sculpture, both hands play a role, as with love.” This sculpture depicts a fish—the flat square—and a bird being merged into one. The original plaster version was reproduced in the 1938 Dictionnaire abrégé due Surréalisme, by André Breton and Paul Eluard, with the title “Moon Dial”—a play on the standard sundial, which, one imagines, would have been used to measure the shadows of the moon at night, an absurd undertaking that evokes the irrationality and dream-logic of much of Ernst’s work. The bird was an alter ego for Ernst, and it carried personal significance. In 1906, his pet bird Hornebom died the same night his sister Maria was born. “A dangerous confusion between birds and humans became encrusted in his mind,” Ernst wrote retrospectively about this formative event.

Image rights: Photo: Peter Schibli / © Max Ernst / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

About Max Ernst

Closely associated with Dada and Surrealism, Max Ernst made paintings, sculptures, and prints depicting fantastic, nightmarish images that often made reference to anxieties originating in childhood. Ernst demonstrated a profound interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, which is apparent in his exploration of Automatism and his invention of the Frottage technique. The artist’s psychoanalytic leanings are evident in his iconic 1923 work Pietà, or Revolution by Night, in which Ernst substitutes the image of Mary cradling the body of Christ with a depiction of the artist himself held by his father. Much of the artist’s work defied societal norms, Christian morality, and the aesthetic standards of Western academic art.

French-American, b. Germany, 1891-1976, Brühl, nr Cologne, Germany