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The King Playing With The QueenMax Ernst (1944)[Museum of Modern Art, New York]
Max Ernst was a fully paid up card carrying Surrealist. Not of the over-cooked Dali style, but more cool, glacial, cerebral. He was at different times nationalised as German, American and French, but he named this piece in English (well, American, which comes close). So the ambiguity in the name was intended, and the piece itself gives us a double, triple or may be more, whammy of symbolism, condensation and displacement à la Freud. The title kicks off the game: “The King Playing with the Queen”. Hmmm…is that “playing with” as in (a) playing with my best piece namely the queen and/or (b) the queen and I are enjoying our game together, thank you very much, and/or (c) I’m toying with her, as a cat does with a mouse? Let’s get the artist to talk to us, as in a psychoanalytic consultation. Perhaps he will reveal the unconscious motivation for the piece and the real meaning of the tricksy title. Lie down on the couch Mr Ernst and say whatever comes into your mind.You say that the king, erupting as a totemic form from the board, derives from your interest in Oceanic, primitive, art. Very interesting. And the spider-like arms are bent to echo the shape of the chess board. Please continue. And the king’s inscrutable face is to remind us of a square from it. Yes I see that. And the other chess pieces you show us? While the king’s expression is a mystery, the queen has been effaced altogether.Oh really; the design of the queen comes from the chess set that you created for “The imagery of Chess” exhibition in 1944, in which you and other surrealists such as Man Ray, Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy contributed. I suppose, therefore, you could say that queen is your queen, couldn’t you? The king is playing with your queen.Tell us about your personal relationships, Mr Ernst, if you wouldn't mind...yes, I thought so. You have spent the summer and autumn with your new significant other, the artist Dorothea Tanning. So the queen is a symbol for the new love in your life. So it follows, doesn’t it, that you are the king playing with her. The whole work is a symbolic representation of your relationship with Ms Tanning. And the meaning of the title is in (b) above. You are playing together.Thank you Mr Ernst, please pay your fee on the way out. Martin S.
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