Illustrated companion

'Celebes' is one of a group of paintings done by Max Ernst between 1921 and 1924 at the time of the transition between Dada and Surrealism. They may be considered as the first Surrealist paintings and three of them are in the collection of the Tate Gallery [see also T00336 and T03252].

Max Ernst took from Giorgio de Chirico the idea of bringing together unrelated objects in strange settings. This procedure was seized on by the Surrealists because it corresponded to the process of free association which was one of the methods used by Freud to discover the patterns of unconscious thought in his patients. These patterns, Freud believed, were also revealed in dreams.

Following Freud, the Surrealists attached great importance to dreams and the undoubted dreamlike character of de Chirico's pictures gave them a ready model for painting them.

In 'Celebes' the atmosphere of violence and the half mechancial, half elephant-like monster may be related to Ernst's traumatic experiences in the German army during the First World War which he mentions in his autobiography. The monster is somehow reminiscent of a military tank and the mechanical element on top has a single eye looking out as if from a periscope. The monster appears to be standing on an airfield and the trail of smoke in the sky suggests an aircraft being shot down. However, not all is simple, since also in the sky are two fish, swimming. More specifically, the artist has revealed some of the associations which produced the monster. The shape was derived from a photograph, found in an anthropological journal, of a corn storage bin used by a tribe in Sudan. Its elephant-like appearance and non-European origin must then have reminded Ernst of a playground chant about elephants when he was at school: 'the elephant from Celebes, / has sticky yellow bottom grease' is one couplet of it. Celebes is a large island in Indonesia next to Borneo.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.161