Max Ernst



Not on display

Max Ernst 1891–1976
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1254 × 1079 mm
frame: 1397 × 1210 × 102 mm
Purchased 1975

Display caption

The central rotund shape in this painting derives from a photograph of a Sudanese corn-bin, which Ernst has transformed into a sinister mechanical monster. Ernst often re-used found images, and either added or removed elements in order to create new realities, all the more disturbing for being drawn from the known world. The work’s title comes from a childish German rhyme that begins: ‘The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease’. The painting’s inexplicable combinations, such as the headless female figure and the elephant-like creature, suggest images from a dream and the Freudian technique of free association.

Gallery label, October 2016

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Max Ernst 1891-1976

T01988 Celebes 1921

Inscribed 'max ernst 1921' b.l., 'Celebes' b.r. and 'No. 1. MAX ERNST | CELEBES' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 49 3/8 x 44 (125.5 x 108)
Purchased from the Elephant Trust (Grant-in-Aid) 1975
Prov: Paul Eluard, Paris, 1921; Sir Roland Penrose, London, 1938; the Elephant Trust 1975
Exh: Grosse Düsseldorfer Kunstausstellung, Cologne, July-August 1924 (197); Was ist Surrealismus?, Kunsthaus, Zurich, October-November 1934 (16); International Surrealist Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London, June-July 1936 (93); Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 1936-January 1937 (349, repr.); Max Ernst, London Gallery, London, December 1938-January 1939 (5); Max Ernst, Cambridge University Arts Society at Gordon Fraser's Gallery, Cambridge, February 1939 (4); 40,000 Years of Modern Art, ICA, Academy Hall, London, December 1948-January 1949 (131, repr.); Gloire de la Peinture Moderne: Hommage à James Ensor, Palais des Thermes, Ostend, July-August 1949 (64); Eretentoonstelling James Ensor, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, September-October 1949 (64); Max Ernst, Gemälde und Graphik 1920-1950, Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl, March-April 1951 (7, repr.); Max Ernst, Gemälde und Graphik 1920-1950, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, November-December 1951 (7, repr.); Max Ernst, ICA, London, December 1952-January 1953 (5); Max Ernst, Casino Communal, Knokke-Le Zoute, July-August 1953 (11); XXVII Biennale, Venice, June-October 1954 (Room XLVII, 1); Max Ernst, Kunsthalle, Bern, August-September 1956 (12); 50 Ans d'Art Moderne, Palais International des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, April-July 1958 (89, repr.); Max Ernst, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, November-December 1959 (3); Max Ernst, Museum of Modern Art, New York, March-May 1961 (3, repr.); Art Institute, Chicago, June-July 1961 (3, repr.); Max Ernst, Tate Gallery, September-October 1961 (27, repr.); Max Ernst, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, December 1962-March 1963 (7, repr.); Kunsthaus, Zurich, March-April 1963 (7, repr.); Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage, Museum of Modern Art, New York, March-June 1968 (93, repr. in colour); Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July-September 1968 (93, repr. in colour); Art Institute, Chicago, October-December 1968 (93, repr. in colour); Max Ernst, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, September-November 1969 (3, repr.); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, November 1969-January 1970 (3, repr.); Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, January-March 1970 (4, repr. in colour); Max Ernst, Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris, April-May 1971 (1, repr.); Max Ernst: a Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, New York, February-April 1975 (64, repr.); Max Ernst, Grand Palais, Paris, May-August 1975 (64, repr.); Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Hayward Gallery, London, January-March 1978 (5.23, repr.)
Lit: Patrick Waldberg, Max Ernst (Paris 1958), pp.164, 173, repr. p.165; Eduard Trier, Max Ernst (Recklinghausen 1959), p.14, repr. p.35; Wolfgang Stadler, Was sagt uns die moderne Malerei (Freiburg, Basle, Vienna 1964), p.170ff, repr. pl.123; John Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work (London 1967), pp.50, 64, 66, repr. p.49 in colour; Lucy R. Lippard, 'Max Ernst and a Sculpture of Fantasy' in Art International, XI, 20 February 1967, p.39 repr.; Lothar Fischer (ed.), Max Ernst in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek bei Hamburg 1969), p.58, repr. p.60; Carlo Sala, Max Ernst et la Démarche Onirique (Paris 1970), p.34, repr. pl.15; Sir Roland Penrose, Max Ernst's Celebes (Newcastle upon Tyne 1972), repr. in colour on cover, back of canvas repr. p.20; Werner Spies, Max Ernst-Collagen (Cologne 1974), pp.56, 76, 90, 111, 126, 187, 210, repr. pl.137; Werner Spies, Sigrid and Günter Metken, Max Ernst: Werke 1906-1925 (Houston-Cologne 1975), No.466, p.240, front and back repr.
Repr: Cahiers d'Art, 1936, p.167

'Celebes', or 'The Elephant Celebes' as it is sometimes known, was painted in Cologne in 1921 and was Max Ernst's first large picture. It was bought shortly after its completion by his friend the poet Paul Eluard and later passed from him to Sir Roland Penrose, who owned it until 1975 when he gave it to be sold for the benefit of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Sir Roland's Charlton Lecture, op. cit., is by far the most detailed study of it and is the basis of the following note. The reader is referred to it for a detailed compositional analysis and interpretation.

This painting grew directly out of Ernst's use of collage from 1919 onwards to produce bizarre combinations of images, though no preliminary collages or sketches were made for it. The idea of the painting appeared spontaneously on the canvas with few alterations as it progressed.

The boiler-like monster to which the title refers is, like the rest of the painting, highly ambiguous. It has a horned head with apparently sightless eyes, but a pair of tusks projecting on the left suggests the possible presence of a second head (or perhaps the real head?) on the other side. Its neck seems to consist of a long snake-like coil which emerges from a hole in its upper section; the top is surmounted by a brightly-coloured construction containing a mysterious eye. It seems to be standing in a large open space, but there are also indications that it is embedded in a solid background, while two fishes swim in the sky above. Three upright objects stand around it, while in the bottom corner a headless mannequin figure with a raised arm appears to be beckoning the monster towards it.

As was first noted by John Craxton and subsequently confirmed by Ernst himself, the image of the boiler-like form on its pair of 'legs' was originally inspired by an illustration in an English anthropological journal of a huge communal corn-bin peculiar to the Konkombwa tribe of the southern Sudan. The photograph is taken from the same angle and is basically very similar, but the artist has given the hollow clay container a metallic appearance and changed its character completely by adding the various appendages described above.

Ernst also revealed to Sir Roland that the title 'Celebes' was taken from some scurrilous couplets popular among German schoolboys which run as follows:

Der Elefant von Celebes
Hat hinten etwas gelebes

Der Elefant von Sumatra
Der vögelt seine Grossmama

Der Elefant von Indien
Der kann das Loch nicht findien

(The elephant from Celebes
has sticky, yellow bottom grease

The elephant from Sumatra
always fucks his grandmamma

The elephant from India
can never find the hole ha-ha)

There are various light-hearted scribbles on the back of the canvas of caricature-like figures and animals, which mostly seem to have no connection with the painting on the other side. However Mrs Gabrielle Keiller has noted that they include two figures holding what appear to be golf clubs (confirmed by the word 'GOLF' written beside them) and being observed by a grotesque head with a balloon coming from its mouth containing the words 'HA HA' - possibly an allusion to the last verse of the rhyme.

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.204-6, reproduced p.204 and back of dust-jacket in colour

You might like