‘Leonardo’s celebrated vulture, coaxed out of hiding centuries later by a student of Freud - might it not be slowly consuming the liver, kidney, and dreams of a people whose sin and punishment consist in no longer being able to believe in their dreams?’ (Max Ernst, ‘The Danger Arising for a Government when it Ignores the Tenets of Surrealism’, 1934, quoted in W. Spies, Max Ernst - Loplop, London, 1983, p. 105).
Portrait érotique voilé (Obscure Erotic Portrait) is a painting of major importance in Max Ernst’s oeuvre first created in 1933 and later reworked by the artist into a new, more regal and grandiose version around 1950. Centred upon the depiction of an imperious bird-headed female figure sporting a revolutionary bonnet de la Liberté and seated on a crimson throne, this final version was unseen in public until the major retrospective of Ernst’s work held at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf in 1991.
The original state of Portrait érotique voilé which Ernst created in 1933 was a more muted and less colour-filled picture that was also less triumphant in its presentation of its subject and more traumatic and troubling in its imagery. Painted in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany, this first ‘state’ of Portrait érotique voilé depicted a similar bird-headed female engaged in an act of coitus with an anonymous winged figure while strange reptilian creatures appeared to both be born from and claw into the flesh of her belly. Like other major paintings from this period, such as Jardin des Hespérides or Le déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1936, the work championed the same disturbing anthropomorphic blend of nude female form with reptilian and ornithological imagery that distinguished much of his best work of the 1930s and seemed to be derived from Ernst’s obsession at this time with Freud’s famous interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and St Anne. ‘Leonardo’s celebrated vulture, coaxed out of hiding centuries later by a student of Freud,’ Ernst wrote in a provocative statement made in 1934, ‘might it not be slowly consuming the liver, kidney, and dreams of a people whose sin and punishment consist in no longer being able to believe in their dreams?’ (Max Ernst, ‘The Danger Arising for a Government when it Ignores the Tenets of Surrealism’,1934, quoted in W. Spies, Max Ernst -Loplop, London, 1983, p. 105).
Certainly, the beaked female figure at the centre of the first state of the painting made in 1933 seems to be being assaulted in a similar manner. More than this, however, in both the first state and the final state of Portrait érotique voilé she is presented as a kind of amalgam of all of the key figures of Ernst’s work of the 1930s in one. With her red revolutionary hat and beaked face shown in profile, this bird-woman is in part an incarnation of Max Ernst’s famous alter-ego ‘Loplop’ - the ‘Bird Superior’ or ‘Head Bird’. Loplop was a figure who first materialised, unconsciously, as a character in Ernst’s work in the late 1920s and one who came to play a central role in his art throughout the 1930s. In particular, the figure here recalls Ernst’s portraits of Loplop ‘presenting the Marseillaise’ that Ernst had made in 1930. In these graphic works, the Bird Superior was shown standing behind an easel on which a frottage representation of a bird-headed woman seated on a throne was depicted. This imperious central figure also recalls some of the so-called ‘human figures’ merging bird, reptile and human form that Ernst painted in the 1930s as well as his ‘fireside angels’ painted in response to the Spanish Civil War and as a warning against the rise of Fascism.
Ernst’s original Portrait érotique voilé of 1933 was one of the artist’s most complete renderings on this complex theme. A fusion of his 1920s struggling nudes, chimeras and the persona of Loplop with the strange, semi-human, semi-insect or reptile-like figures of dream and nightmare that distinguished his most recent work, this accomplished painting was among a select group of pictures that Ernst exhibited in Paris at the landmark ‘International Exhibition of Surrealism’ held at the Galerie de Beaux-Arts in 1938. This was the defining 1930s review of Surrealism, complete with mannequins, Parisian street signs and a ceiling of coal sacks made by Marcel Duchamp that transformed the entire exhibition space into a strange, labyrinthine odyssey of unconscious imagery and bizarre revelation. It was around the time of this exhibition that Portrait érotique voilé became the property of Ernst’s friend Gilbert Lély. Lély was a French poet with whom Ernst collaborated, producing a frontispiece for his eagerly awaited publication of a book of hitherto unseen letters by the favourite writer of the Surrealists, the Marquis de Sade.
According the Ernst family, sometime before 1946, Portrait érotique voilé came back into Ernst’s possession and, at an unknown date, but after he had settled in Sedona with Dorothea Tanning, Ernst added considerably to the painting, reworking its comparatively empty space and macabre imagery into its more vivid and imposing present form. Reflecting perhaps Ernst’s happier and more settled circumstances living with Dorothea in Arizona, his later vision of this grandiose bird-female is decidedly less troubled and more stable than the earlier one.
Ernst has replaced the naked lower-body of the bird-woman with a schematic rendering of egg-like forms that makes her seem less vulnerable, more stately and even more bird-like. She is now a revolutionary Loplop-type figure that is definitely a ‘Bird-Superior’. Indeed, she has taken on a kind of nurturing and protective role. On her lap Ernst has painted a white dove, while the other smaller bird-like figures previously seen clawing at her belly now appear to be sheltering under her protection. The same can perhaps also be said for the figure beside her. Instead of being assaulted from behind, as she was the first state, here Ernst sets her on a crimson, even papal-like throne. The winged phallus approaching her from behind in the original vision has now become a more playful figure by being transformed into a kind of cockerel with the addition of a beaked face and a vermillion crown of feathers. These same feathers have been added to two of the bird-like creatures sheltering between her legs. The only feature of the painting to remain wholly unchanged from the original state of 1933 is the picture-within-a- picture to the left of the painting which depicts a strange bird-reptile figure seemingly caught in a Laocoön-like struggle with itself. In this way the painting has become more of an imperial portrait of a kind of royal family of bird-figures presented in a triumphant manner, not dissimilar to Ernst’s large 1948 sculpture Capricorn.