Painted in Cologne before Ernst abandoned his wife and child for the cultural mecca of Paris, Celebes is a seminal work heralding the birth of Surrealism. It would be another three years before André Breton published his manifesto of Surrealism but Ernst is already employing here (and in other contemporary works) a personal lexicon of childhood and dream images partly inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud which he read whilst at university before the Great War (where he read psychology as well as philosophy and art history).
The ideas associated with the Surrealist movement had been in the air for some time. Guillaume Apollinaire (who appears in another work by Ernst housed in Tate Modern, Pietà or Revolution by Night) had coined the term in 1917 in relation to his own play Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Parade, the ballet for which Picasso had designed the sets. There were other precursors, notably the poet Comte de Lautréamont who as early as 1869 had written of the beauty of ‘the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’.
But in this painting Ernst leaned heavily on the most obvious prophet of Surrealist painting, Giorgio de Chirico. The picture is dominated by a monstrously bulbous metallic object which, according to the artist, derives from a photograph of an African container for storing corn. Some industrial hosing emanates from a dark hole in the top of this object, the other end culminating in a bull’s skull. Perched on top of this half-mechanical — half-animate being an indeterminate apparatus (very reminiscent of de Chirico’s later metaphysical paintings) performs an undefined role — perhaps one of directional control, for a partly obscured eye stares disconcertingly back at the viewer from behind its blue eyrie.
This semi-sentient automaton looms threateningly over an agoraphobic landscape — exactly the sort of place which features in nightmares where one is being pursued, because there is no possible cover from the inherent menace in such a setting. And, of course, these landscapes, instituted by de Chirico, were later to appear again and again in the Surrealist canon. The sky is also pregnant with dreamlike surprise. Two fish swim through the ether and a strange trail of smoke seems to suggest a downed aeroplane (possibly a reference to Ernst’s wartime experiences on the Western Front) although there is no discernible craft from which the smoke could issue.
To the right a curious entity teeters unsteadily, echoing the ambiguous nature of the central ‘elephant’ — is it made up of metallic coffee pots? Or is it supposed to be organic — some kind of tree? Obscuring the lower portions of this object stands a headless female torso, perhaps a mannequin, devoid of life but possessed of an animated claw-like hand which seems to be pointing to the red phallic spout to its right.
1921 Paul Signac: Port of La Rochelle, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Pablo Picasso: Three Women at the Fountain, New York, MOMA
Piet Mondrian: Painting 1, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum