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Max Ernst

Investigating under Ernst’s surfaces at the Fondation Beyeler

Technical analysis could reveal secrets of rare Ernst plaster sculpture

Basel

Conservators at the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland are carrying out a detailed investigation of one of Max Ernst’s most important sculptures, The King Playing with the Queen, which the Surrealist artist created in plaster in 1944, three years after he fled Europe for New York. After technical analyses of its structure and painted surface, the work is due to go on show in the exhibition “Max Ernst: a Retrospective”, which opens at the foundation next month (26 May-8 September).

“This is one of Ernst’s most influential sculptures,” says Raphael Bouvier, the curator of the Swiss exhibition (the show opened at the Albertina in Vienna in January, organised by the German art historian Werner Spies). “There is the concept of chess playing, which is a recurring theme in his work, as well as the idea of metamorphosis, with the chess figure also being the chess player. It’s not clear whether he used found objects, but it’s a visual transformation of the readymade.”

Blue is the colour

Markus Gross, the Beyeler’s chief conservator, says the investigation will answer crucial questions about Ernst’s sculptural practice. “Smaller parts are most likely made from casts of spoons and small vessels,” he says. “We have discovered interesting details about the fabrication process from X-ray images; the sculpture has a core structure made of bent wires and metal grating.”

Pigment analysis will determine when and why the work was painted blue, which is “unusual for sculptures by Ernst”, Gross says. Patches of white, dark blue and green pigment on the surface may be traces from the bronzing process; 13 bronze versions were created from the original plaster, ten during Ernst’s lifetime and three after his death.

Primarily a painter and collagist, Ernst created his first sculpture in 1934, when he was 43. Plaster sculptures by the artist rarely survive, owing to their fragile composition (the neck of the king figure was broken in the 1980s but was well repaired). Ernst Beyeler, who acquired The King Playing with the Queen in 1995, also owned several bronze versions, which he sold. He kept the plaster because of its “extraordinary provenance—Max Ernst gave the work to Robert Motherwell”, Bouvier says.

Initial results from the project, which has been sponsored by BNP Paribas (Suisse), suggest that major treatment is not needed, but efforts are being made “to stabilise and protect the sculpture from wear and degradation”, Gross says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Under Ernst’s surface'