Max Ernst
The Entire City 1934

Artwork details

Max Ernst 1891–1976
The Entire City
La Ville entière
Date 1934
Medium Oil paint on paper on canvas
Dimensions Support: 502 x 613 mm
frame: 696 x 798 x 47 mm
Acquisition Purchased with assistance from the Knapping Fund 1941


The Entire City 1934 is an oil painting on paper mounted on canvas by the German surrealist artist Max Ernst. The painting depicts a cityscape comprised of a mass of geometric forms set against a deep blue sky. The dark shapes that comprise the buildings of the city are marked by striations and floral patterns highlighted in orange and pink tones. A small white ring in the upper left hand corner of the composition seems to represent the moon. The lack of detail or definition, along with the layered, textured structures, suggest that this might be a city in ruins.

The Entire City is part of a series of around twelve paintings on the same theme that Ernst made between 1933 and 1937. The two final works in the series, made in 1935–7 and also titled The Entire City, are larger in scale than the earlier versions, with one measuring 970 x 1600 mm (Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice) and the other 970 x 1460 mm (private collection). Both these versions have a larger expanse of sky that covers roughly half of the canvas, in contrast to the earlier paintings where the sky forms around one quarter of the overall composition. Ernst recollected in 1953 that he painted the 1934 version of The Entire City owned by Tate in the studio of the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose at the Chateau de Pouys in the south of France, where he was being hosted at that time as an exile from his native Germany.

In order to create the textured effect seen in The Entire City Ernst used a technique called grattage, which involved running an object or piece of material, such as a plank of wood or the backbone of a fish, over the painted surface. Using this process he could incorporate unexpected marks and shapes and imbue the work with an element of chance. Grattage, a term coined by Ernst that means ‘scraping’ in French, was developed by the artist from a similar technique called frottage that involves rubbing a pencil or crayon over a piece of paper that is placed against a textured surface.

During the 1920s in Paris Ernst was important member of the circle of artists and writers connected through surrealism. As early as 1921 he made a group portrait painting titled All Friends Together that depicted many of the surrealists, including André Breton, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, demonstrating the artist’s affinity with this like-minded group of peers. In terms of his painting technique, at this time he abandoned almost all traditional modes of painting by brush in a quest to go ‘beyond painting’ and embrace more automatic methods including experimental techniques like frottage and grattage (Schneede 1972, p.124).

In the printed catalogue The Tate Gallery’s Wartime Acquisitions the 1934 painting is listed under a different title as The Citadel, however in the Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists curator Ronald Alley mentions that this was not the original title and that according to a statement by the artist ‘it should be called “La ville entire” (not “Study for ‘La ville entire’”)’. (Alley 1981, p.210.) However, the art historian Uwe Schneede has remarked that the cities in these paintings by Ernst ‘are not entire at all, but ruined citadels’, resembling the ‘ruins of some urban utopia by a nineteenth-century architect – the remains, after some disaster’ (Schneede 1972, p.147). Indeed, this painting and others in the series may reflect Ernst’s pessimism as the Nazi party began to take power in his native Germany.

Further reading
Uwe M. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst, trans. by R.W. Last, London 1972, p.147, reproduced p.146.
Werner Spies, Sigrid Metken and Günter Metken (eds.), Max Ernst: Werke 1929–1938, Houston and Cologne 1979, reproduced p.340.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.210, reproduced p.210.

Natasha Adamou
March 2016

Supported by Christie’s.