Max Ernst

Pietà or Revolution by Night


Not on display

Max Ernst 1891–1976
Original title
Pietà ou La révolution la nuit
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1162 × 889 mm
frame: 1457 × 1188 × 88 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

In 1924 the poet André Breton published the first Manifesto of Surrealism. The primary aim of this literary and artistic movement was, he explained: 'to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.' Inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's theory of the unconscious, Surrealism used irrational images to portray the working of the human mind. Max Ernst's Pietà or Revolution by Night is typical. The painting replaces the traditional scene of Mary clasping the body of Christ with an image of the artist himself, held by his father. A staunch Catholic, Ernst's father had denounced his son's work, and the painting is often seen as rising out of their troubled relationship, although - like dreams - it resists precise analysis. Other Surrealists included the poets Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, and the artists René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. Purges and defections meant that by 1939 the strength of the group had dissipated. However, it was not formally disbanded until 1968.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘PIETA/ou/La Révolution la Nuit’ bottom right and ‘max ernst/23’ bottom left
Oil on canvas, 45 1/2 × 34 7/8 (116 × 88.5)
Purchased from Gianni Agnelli through Marlborough Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Prov: Paul Eluard, Paris, 1923; Sir Roland Penrose, London, 1938; Gianni Agnelli, Turin, 1971
Exh: Exposition Max Ernst, Galerie van Leer, Paris, March 1926 (1); Exposition Minotaure, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, May–June 1934 (47); Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 1936–January 1937 (354); Origines et Développements de l'Art International Indépendant, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, July–November 1937 (111); Max Ernst, London Gallery, December 1938–January 1939 (10, repr.); Max Ernst, Cambridge University Arts Society, Gordon Fraser's Gallery, Cambridge, February 1939 (7); 40 Years of Modern Art. A Selection from British Collections, ICA, Academy Hall, February–March 1948 (23, in illustrated supplement); Max Ernst: 30 Years of his Work, Copley Galleries, Beverly Hills, January–February 1949 (6); Max Ernst: Gemälde und Graphik 1920–1950, Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl, March–April 1951, and Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, November–December 1951 (12, repr.); Max Ernst: Drawings, Paintings, Collages 1918–1952, ICA, December 1952–January 1953 (9); Max Ernst, Casino Municipal, Knokke-Le Zoute, July–August 1953 (17, repr.); Max Ernst, Kunsthalle, Bern, August–September 1956 (15, repr.); Paintings by Max Ernst, Matthiesen Gallery, November–December 1956 (4); Dada: Dokumente einer Bewegung, Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, September–October 1958 and tour to Kunstverein, Frankfurt, November 1958, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 1958–February 1959 (309, repr.); Max Ernst, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, November–December 1956 (6); Max Ernst, Museum of Modern Art, New York, March–May 1961 and Art Institute, Chicago, June–July 1961 (6, repr.); Max Ernst, Tate Gallery, September–October 1961 (30, repr.); Max Ernst, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, December 1962–March 1963 and Kunsthaus, Zurich, March–April 1963 (11, repr.); Dada: Ausstellung-zum 50-jahrigen Jubiläum, Exposition Commémorative du Cinquantenaire, Kunsthaus, Zurich, October–November 1966 and Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, November 1966–January 1967 (81); The Enchanted Domain: Surrealist Art, City Gallery, Exeter, 1967 (47); Durham Surrealist Festival, Dunelm House, Durham, November–December 1968 (Ernst 4, repr.); Max Ernst, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, September–November 1969 (10, repr.); Max Ernst, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, November 1969–January 1970 (9, repr.); Max Ernst, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, January–March 1970 (6, colour); L'Art en Europe autour de 1925, Ancienne Douane, Strasbourg, May–September 1970 (49, repr.); Selected European Masters of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Marlborough Fine Art, June–September 1973 (19, colour); MaxErnst: A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, New York, February–April 1975 (74, repr.); Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Hayward Gallery, January–March 1978 (8.12); Max Ernst: Retrospektive 1979, Haus der Kunst, Munich, February–April 1979 (69, repr.)
Lit: Robert Desnos, ‘Surréalisme’, Cahiers d'Art, no.8, 1926, p.212; André Breton, Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, Paris 1928, p.51, repr.p.36; Salvador Dali, ‘The Object as Revealed in Surrealist Experiment’, This Quarter, Paris, 1932, p.197ff. (republished in French in exh. catalogue Salvador Dali: Rétrospective 1920–1980, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1980, pp.215–20); James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, New York 1955, p.149, repr.; John Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work, 1967, p.74, colour p.59; Uwe M. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst, 1972, p.56, repr.p.57; Werner Spies, Max Ernst: Collagen, Paris and Cologne 1974, pp.49, 113, 118, 184; Werner Spies and Sigrid and Günter Metken, Max Ernst: Werke 1906–1925, Houston and Cologne 1975, no.624, p.323, repr.; Malcolm Gee, ‘Max Ernst, God, and The Revolution by Night’, Arts Magazine, March 1981, pp.85–91, repr.fig.1; Roland Penrose, Scrap Book 1900–1981, 1981, pp.168–70, 286, colour p.283; Dawn Ades, Dali, 1982, pp.81–2, repr.
Repr: La Révolution Surré aliste, no.4, 15 July 1925, p.23; London Bulletin, no.7, December 1938–January 1939, p.9; Edward Quinn, Max Ernst, 1977, p.109 in colour

Painted at Saint Brice, a suburb of Paris, in the house of Ernst's friend the poet Paul Eluard, with whom the artist went to stay after leaving Germany in August 1922. It belongs to a small number of early Surrealist masterpieces, which Ernst considered began with ‘Celebes’ 1921 and ended with ‘Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale’ 1924. In the case of two of these paintings - ‘At the First Plain Word’ and ‘Of This Men shall know Nothing’ - it has been demonstrated (by Werner Spies and Geoffrey Hinton, respectively), that Ernst's familiarity with certain theories and case histories of Freud directly influenced his choice of images. In a lengthy analysis in Arts Magazine, Malcolm Gee has argued further that ‘in ... “Pieta” ... Ernst based his composition on a detailed understanding of the relation posited by Freud between dream images and latent material, and that the “message” hidden in this way in the picture concerns his own problematic childhood’. Gee bases his belief that Ernst's interest in Freud went beyond the manifest content of dreams to their latent content or real meaning - a view not shared by Spies - on a close comparison of ‘Pietà’ with Freud's famous study of an inverted Oedipal complex, ‘The Wolf Man’, first published in 1918. According to Gee, Ernst seems to have adapted Freud's essay, fusing it with childhood memories and more immediate artistic debts, to symbolize his own traumatic relationship with his father.

The moustached father-figure (Mary) on his knees in the centre of the painting recalls de Chirico's ‘The Child's Brain’ 1914, which at the time was owned by André Breton. The child (Christ) in his arms is Ernst himself, his head depicted in the style of a classical Greek statue (possibly another reference to de Chirico, whom Ernst greatly admired). He wears a medical shirt whose whiteness is echoed by the shower-head device, probably a symbol for castration or impotence, protruding from the wall behind. The identity of the third figure with bandaged head sketched on the same wall remains mysterious: Gee suggests that he is a conflation of Freud and Ivan Karamazov from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which, ‘in its treatment of the theme of parricide ... shows an intuitive understanding of the Oedipus complex.’ (At one point in the novel, Ivan wraps a towel round his head in an effort to block out a nightmare or hallucination). In ‘Au Rendez-vous des Amis’, painted shortly before ‘Pieta’ in December 1922, Ernst portrayed himself sitting on Dostoyevsky's knees. An alternative suggestion has come from Mrs Gabrielle Keiller that the figure may represent Apollinaire, a cult figure among the Surrealists who was wounded in the head during the First World War. The bandage and closed eyes could also refer to Oedipus's self-inflicted blinding in the original myth.

During the winter of 1922–3 Ernst participated in the evening sessions (‘sommeils’) at Eluard's house when the Surrealists would attempt to release stream-of-consciousness imagery in trances induced by drugs or hypnosis. In her entry on ‘Pietà’ for the Dada and Surrealism Reviewed exhibition catalogue in 1978, Dawn Ades observes that ‘this painting is filled with the atmosphere of these sessions as reported in Littérature [the surrealist review]. Death is a constant theme...’ (p.177). All three figures in T03252 appear to be either asleep, dead or in a trance.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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