Audio transcript

Max Ernst 'Celebes'

Narrator: The creature in Max Ernst's painting 'Celebes' has been identified variously as an elephant inspired by a rude playground rhythm and modelled on a photograph of an African grain bin, and as a mechanical monster. In the 1920s many European artists and writers were preoccupied by the mechanisation of society and the increasing reliance on machines in daily life. Some also made comparisons between the supposedly civilised industrialised countries of western Europe and so-called primitive cultures such as those in Africa. Cultural historian Christopher Frayling

Max Ernst was a great fan of horror literature: Edgar Allen Poe, ETA Hoffman and particularly romantic horror stories. And one of the great themes of romantic horror stories is machines that come to life, people that turn into machines and this sort of interface between things that might be mechanical, might be organism. In fact when Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny, he took this thing of people and machines as one of the central aspects of weird dreams, weird literature and we know that Ernst had read Freud's essay on the uncanny. Now the question is, are they scary, or aren't they? I actually think that 'Celebes' is rather charming. It's a lumbering elephant with its trunk. I like elephants and I don't find it very scary OK it's got tusks which are slightly like vampire teeth coming out of the bottom left-hand corner and maybe this trunk like pipe is a bit scary and again the headless torso on the right which often features in Max Ernst's collages which is something about forget about the material body, think about dreams, think about the unconscious. That's a bit nasty. But the elephant is rather charming I think about Baba the elephant and all those rather cuddly elephants of the inter-war period. The elephant got his back to us, his bottom is facing us which is supposed to be a reference to this very rude song about 'Celebes' the elephant who has sticky yellow bottom grease. So his bottom is facing us, mercifully without the grease coming out which I think would be rather sinister! So I think he's a charming monster and it sort of humanised early surrealism in Britain. The history of this painting is that it came into a British collection quite early on and for a lot of British people in the 1930s and 40s, this painting was surrealism.