Max Ernst

The Entire City


In Tate Modern

Max Ernst 1891–1976
Original title
La Ville entière
Oil paint on paper on canvas
Support: 502 × 613 mm
frame: 696 × 798 × 47 mm
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.

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Display caption

A crumbling city looms oppressively below the ring-shaped moon. Ernst made a whole series of such works. The imagery may reflect his pessimism as Nazism took hold in his native Germany. The ruined cityscape was created using a technique that Ernst called ‘grattage’ (scraping). It involved placing the canvas over planks of wood or other textured surfaces, then scraping paint across it. The shapes that emerged formed the basis of the image. Grattage was one of a number of techniques that Surrealist artists explored as a way of letting a chance element into their work. 

Gallery label, January 2022

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Catalogue entry

Max Ernst 1891-1976

N05289 La Ville entière (The Entire City) 1935

Inscribed 'max ernst' b.r.
Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 19 3/4 x 24 1/8 (50 x 61.5)
Purchased from the Redfern Gallery (Knapping Fund) 1941
Prov: With Galerie Van Leer, Paris; with Redfern Gallery, London, 1937
Exh: Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings, Redfern Gallery, London, June 1938 (31) as 'The Citadel'; French and English Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings, Redfern Gallery, London, July 1938 (24); Summer Exhibition, Redfern Gallery, London, July-September 1939 (146); French and English Paintings, Redfern Gallery, London, November 1939 (61); The Tate Gallery's Wartime Acquisitions, National Gallery, London, April-May 1942 (28); A Selection from the Tate Gallery's Wartime Acquisitions, CEMA touring exhibition, September 1942-September 1943 (13)
Lit: Werner Spies, Sigrid and Günter Metken, Max Ernst: Werke 1929-1938 (Houston-Cologne 1979), No.2218, p.340 repr. (dated 1935)
Repr: John Rothenstein, Modern Foreign Pictures in the Tate Gallery (London 1947), pl.100; Uwe M. Schneede, The Essential Max Ernst (London 1972), pl.291

This is one of the most developed of a series of about a dozen paintings on this theme which Ernst seems to have begun in 1935 and which culminated in two large pictures of 1936-7 called 'La Ville entière’, one 97 x 160cm in the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice and the other 97 x 146cm in a Paris private collection, both of which have a larger expanse of sky, indications of an ancient ruined city in the distance and vegetation in the foreground. Ernst said in 1953 that this particular work was painted in 1934 while he was staying with Sir Roland Penrose at the Chateau de Pouys (Gers) in the South of France, and was executed in his host's studio, but it would seem that he was mistaken about the year.

It has also been known as 'The Citadel', though this is not the original title. The artist said that it should be called 'La Ville entière’ (not 'Study for "La Ville entière’ '). However, as Uwe Schneede points out, 'The "Entire Cities" are not entire at all, but ruined citadels' (op. cit., p.147).

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, p.210, reproduced p.210

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