Learning more about Max Ernst's Playing with the Queen

A major new retrospective of the work of Max Ernst is underway at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland, and while it is comprised of many of his important works, a lot of interest has been generated in the first time joint showing of two of the versions of Playing with the Queen.
The plaster version, which was executed in 1944 while the artist was living in forced exile in America, serves as the principal work, while the bronze cast is one of several later versions delivered by Ernst.
It is a commanding sculpture, typically reflective of his surrealistic sensibilities, and sees an angular and featureless male figure with horns sat directly in front of a chessboard, upon which rest a number of pieces.
While the horns could perceivably be construed as adornments that can be found on a crown of a monarch, the figure in this work is more suggestive of the Minotaur from Greek mythology.
This half-man, half-beast – head of a bull, body of a man – in Ernst’s sculpture is a chess player in the middle of a game. With his right hand he appears to be protecting or restricting the queen, while his right hand, held back, is holding a nondescript piece, perhaps a pawn.
“Max Ernst had already made a series of figural sculptures a decade earlier, while still living in France,” the museum explains.
“These sculptures, produced from 1934 onwards, present themselves as surrealist works ‘with a symbolic function’. The painters, sculptors and assemblage artists of Surrealism aimed to create freely-invented images and objects out of a body of visions and myths.”
While the work in itself is utterly fascinating – he was greatly influenced by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud – what is perhaps more interesting, in the here and now, is the restoration project that has preceded the exhibition.
This has helped experts gain insight into his novel form of construction and the processes behind the development of this exciting and brooding sculpture. High-resolution X-ray scans have shown how the structural composition of the work begins with an armature made out of wire.
The thickness of it varies with each component part of the object, naturally thicker where it was going to be larger (the head for example). Meanwhile, the plaster exterior has been found to have been put together not as a whole, but through individual pieces cast from moulds. This was then reinforced with wire and assembled.
As for the aesthetic appearance, what we now know is that the sculpture was decorated with two layers of blue paint, which has been dated to roughly the same period as when it was first put together. Additionally, the paint has been found to be similar to that used on his other work.
Unfortunately, this is something we can no longer fully appreciate – the original blue tint has been lost because of the after-effects of subsequent caster processes and “later interventions” that have added a new layer to the work.
“These fragments of other coatings are of great interest, since they alert the viewer to events in the sculpture’s past,” Fondation Beyeler comments.
“They are part of a surface that has acquired its own history. Restoring this surface to an authentic condition would today be all but impossible on technical and ethical grounds.”
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