Max Ernst

Men Shall Know Nothing of This


Original title
Les Hommes n'en sauront rien
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 803 x 638 mm
frame: 970 x 806 x 62 mm
Purchased 1960

Display caption

Ernst studied philosophy and psychology in Bonn and was interested in the alternative realities experienced by the insane. This painting may have been inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s study of the delusions of a paranoiac, Daniel Paul Schreber. Freud identified Schreber’s fantasy of becoming a woman as a ‘castration complex’. The central image of two pairs of legs refers to Schreber’s hermaphroditic desires. Ernst’s inscription on the back of the painting reads: ‘The picture is curious because of its symmetry. The two sexes balance one another.’

Gallery label, July 2008

Catalogue entry

Max Ernst 1891-1976

T00336 Les Hommes n'en sauront Rien (Of This Men shall know Nothing) 1923

Inscribed on the back with a commentary and dedication:
Le croissant (jaune et parachute) empêche que le petit sifflet tombe par terre. Celui-ci, parce qu'on s'occupe de lui, s'imagine monter au soleil.
Le soleil est divisé en deux pour mieux tourner.
Le modèle est étendu dans une pose de rêve. La jambe droite est repliée (mouvement agréable et exact)
La main cache la terre. Par ce mouvement la terre prend l'importance d'un sexe.
La lune parcourt à toute vitesse ses phases et éclipses.
Le tableau est curieux par sa symmétrie. Les deux sexes se font équilibre.
à André Breton
très amicalement
max ernst

Oil on canvas, 31 5/8 x 25 1/8 (80.5 x 64)
Purchased from Gordon Onslow-Ford through the Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago (Grant-in-Aid) 1960
Prov: André Breton, Paris (gift from the artist); Señora Eva Sulzer, San Angelo, Mexico; Gordon Onslow-Ford, Inverness, California
Exh: Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Galerie Beaux-Arts, Paris, January-February 1938 (67); Max Ernst, Tate Gallery, September-October 1961 (35, repr.)
Lit: André Breton, Nadja (Paris 1928), p.164, repr. p.174; Werner Spies, Sigrid and Günter Metken, Max Ernst: Werke 1906-1925 (Houston-Cologne 1975), No.653, p.339 repr.; Geoffrey Hinton, 'Max Ernst: "Les Hommes n'en Sauront Rien"' in Burlington Magazine, CXVII, 1975, pp.292-9, repr. p.297
Repr: Cahiers d'Art, 1936, p.170; John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery (London 1966), p.172 in colour

The back of this picture is inscribed with a mysterious and enigmatic prose poem,
which can be translated as follows:


The crescent (yellow and like a parachute) prevents the little whistle falling to the ground. This whistle, because people are taking notice of it, thinks it is climbing to the sun. | The sun is divided into two so that it can spin better. | The model is stretched out in a dreaming pose. The right leg is bent (a pleasant exact movement). | The hand hides the earth. Through this movement the earth takes on the importance of a sexual organ. | The picture is curious because of its symmetry. The two sexes balance one another.

Max Ernst confirmed to the compiler in February 1970 that this poem was written by himself. It is followed by a dedication to Andre Breton, to whom he gave this picture.

At the top of the painting there is a mysterious 'sun'. From it rays descend to circling astral bodies - 'the earth' (covered by a disembodied hand) with attendant planets. Above, the lower halves of a man and woman copulate in space. An upturned 'crescent moon'/'parachute' supports a 'little whistle'. From an arid desert of viscera and stones rise two strange protuberances, strongly suggestive of ambi-sexual phalli. All this takes on a distinctly Freudian character.

Ernst had studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Bonn from 1909 to 1914. In 1913 he had read Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious and took so much interest in these subjects that he wanted at one time to be a psychiatrist. André Breton, whom he first met in 1921, had also long been interested in psychoanalysis: he had been a medical student from 1913 at the Sorbonne and in the First World War had served from 1915 as a medical assistant, first at the neurological centre in Nantes and then from 1917 at the psychiatric centre at Saint-Dizier.

In Le Surréalisme et la Peinture Breton refers to Ernst's use of certain medical reports as source material for his art, and Werner Spies has shown that Freud's essay 'Delirium and Dreams in W. Jensen's "Gravida" ' underlies the iconography of Ernst's mural of 1923 'At the First Plain Word'. In a lengthy analysis in the Burlington Magazine summarised and quoted in this entry, Geoffrey Hinton has demonstrated a similar relationship between the present picture and a specific psychoanalytical case history which greatly interested Freud and which he discussed in papers of 1911 and 1923, namely the famous Schreber case, upon which he based his theory of paranoia.

As Hinton writes: 'In 1923, at the very moment when Surrealism was coming into being as a movement, Freud published an interesting paper about a seventeenth-century painter, one Christoph Haizmann, who had become insane. Freud had, in fact, long been interested in the relationship between psychology and art. He had already produced the full-length study of Leonardo and a celebrated analysis of Michelangelo's Moses.

'But in this paper Freud reiterated at length his famous analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness which he had first published in 1911, his purpose being to draw a comparison with the Haizmann case. Freud had never met Schreber, but he used his Memoirs as data to corroborate his theory of the homosexual basis of paranoia.

'Much of the symbolism and design of "Les Hommes n'en Sauront Rien" appears to be based on Schreber's Memoirs and on Freud's interpretation of the case.

'Daniel Paul Schreber had, before his illness, been an esteemed High Court Judge ("President") in Dresden. It is now believed that he was suffering from paranoid-schizophrenia, with delusions partly consequent from doubts about his sex, whether male or female. But Freud saw Schreber's fantasies of being transformed into a woman as a castration complex, allied to an inverted Oedipus Complex. His reconsideration of the case in 1923 centred on this interpretation.

'The sun as creator and promoter of life shared, with God, the centre of Schreber's delusions. Freud had noted this heliocentric fixation in 1911: "The patient's peculiar relation to the sun ... expressing his filial relation has confirmed us once again in our view that the sun is the symbol of the father."

'Ernst sets a mysterious sun, with strange emanating rays, at the top of his picture. Schreber had an extraordinary obsession with "rays" ("Strahlen") which were associated with the sun and with God. They were also in his fantasies attached to the stars and to his own body which was, he thought, being changed and dismembered under the impact of their activity. He imagined himself as "floating in voluptuousness" and wrote: "... I have to imagine myself as man and woman in one person having intercourse with myself." Hence, surely, the ambisexual "phalli" in Ernst's painting and the floating male and female forms.'

The viscera at the bottom of the painting may have been inspired by Schreber's reference to fantasies that his intestines, as well as other parts of his body, were being removed by 'rays', while the stones recall his preoccupation with stones which to him symbolised children. Freud's interpretation of the Schreber case in terms of a castration complex may be alluded to in the half-gloved hand in Ernst's painting.

In addition to the Schreber Memoirs, certain elements in the painting seem to contain allusions to the writings on child-rearing by Schreber's father D.G.M. Schreber, a distinguished pedagogue whose theories were a source of much misery to generations of German children in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of this century. Schreber senior had a cranky obsession about 'one-sidedness' in children and his exercises were designed to use both sides of the body alternately. (As the prose poem states: 'The right leg is bent (a pleasant exact movement). ... The picture is curious because of its symmetry'). Moreover he designed an extraordinary range of orthopaedic apparatus for children to inhibit the various parts of the body from slumping. (Hence perhaps: 'The crescent (yellow and like a parachute) prevents the little whistle falling to the ground').

Finally, Geoffrey Hinton has suggested that some of the imagery may have been inspired by the occult, in which the Surrealists were greatly interested at this period. For instance: 'A copulating couple suspended in space is a common alchemic symbol of the "coincidentia oppositorum" and they are often represented together with the sun and the moon. ... [In addition] The upside-down crescent (exactly as in "Les Hommes ...") was a common alchemic symbol for an eclipse (the union of Sun and Moon).'

As regards the position of the 'planets': 'The "planet" atop the central ambisexual "phallus" is, according to Zodiac positioning at the spot where the Sun and Moon conjoin. The planet to the left (which is also a "pendulum") is in the position of Mercury and it aspects with a small white moon. In astrology Mercury (Hermes - hence hermeticism, derived from Hermes Trismegistus) rules Gemini, the "Heavenly twins". He was held to have a double hermaphrodite nature and was especially associated with the moon. He was also supposed to symbolize the unconscious because of the fluid and dynamic character of mercury (the metal).'

(The article by Geoffrey Hinton also makes several further comparisons which have had to be omitted here for reasons of space).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.206-9, reproduced p.206