Celebes – Max Ernst


To give this its full title….The Elephant Celebes, this was painted in 1921 by Max Ernst, and I’m sure that you’re thinking….why…why have you posted this jumbled, crazy, nonsensical picture on your blog?  I’m fairly sure by now, you’re getting the idea that I love symbolism in art.  I thrive on it.  Figuring out what each element brings to the piece really gives me a sense of joy and makes me appreciate the art work a lot more.   It does also lean towards the fact I have an over analytical brain…but that’s beside the point.

This art works forms part of the Dadaist movement with strong links to surrealism.  The Dadaist arena really found its legs just after the First World War.  This particular strain of art work was a direct developed reaction to the war, and rejected logic, reason and aestheticism of the capitalist society which had formed.

Steeped in radical left wing politics, Dadaism used the mundanity of every day items thrown in to what seems to be bizarre and unidentifiable situations.

This pushed forward movements from the avant garde genre, and tried to detach itself from the intrinsic link between words and meaning.  To me this really pushes home the thoughts and ideas that art is subjective to each viewer and can hold several different meanings dependant on the audience.

That said, there are strong synergies in this picture of several different topics and much like Dali, there are clear symbols which can be linked to mythologies.  In the centre we see a great bulk of a machine which has been altered to look like an elephant.  The actual machine is thought to have been take from the idea of a picture of a corn bin that Ernst saw in an article in an anthropological journal.  The domination of the “elephant” in this picture is supposed to define for the viewer the sheer size.   The elephants tail is dressed up to look like a bull… keep this in mind…I’ll come back to it.

In my venture through understanding this picture, there are many, many theories about the elephant looking like a monsterous war machine, or a mechanical monstrosity, which is said to depict the artists concern with war.

To the front we see a headless figure, which seems to be introducing the audience to the elephant, like some kind of side show attraction.  The headless figure did cause some unease at first reception of the piece as it has dismantled any religious thoughts of man being made in gods image, but then I suppose you could look at war and religion being interlinked as usually one is caused by the other at some level.  The figure wears a yellow surgical glove, which is a surrealist symbol, debunking the realist world where the human body is idealised.

The picture is painted in a dream like hue, and this really pulls the links between Ernst’s work and Freud’s theories on dream states in to the forefront of the piece.   

In the sky, and I know it’s really hard to see in this picture, there are two flying fish and a trail of smoke.  There is also a black shape by the fish which could be interpreted as an on coming plane.  All of this could be attributed to the paranoia of war.

There is a totem pole to the right hand side, which again could have been influenced from the original inspiration for the piece as the corn bin was in an article about the Sudanese culture.  It’s also very possible that this is a phallic symbol (honestly…keep this in mind, I am going to pull it all together in to the myth anaylsis…).

The title of the picture is derived from a childish German rhyme which goes like this:-

The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease.

The elephant from Sumatra always fucks his grandmama.

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

With this in mind this brings a heavy sexual connotation to the interpretation.

Which leads me on to the myth interpretation….finally!! I hear you cry.  

We see the elephants tail dressed up to look like a bull with a white frill collar.  In Greek mythology Zeus seduced Europa in the guise of a beautiful white bull that was much more gentle that the others around it.  Europa was drawn to the bull and sat on its back, as she did the bull charged off in to the sea, being followed by sea creatures and even Poseidon himself.  Europa realised that she must be in the back of a God and asked him what he wanted with her, to which Zeus then revealed himself to her and his love for her.  Zeus then took Europa to Crete, where she bore him children in secret.

The headless figure could be Europa, with no head, as love is blind after all.  The totem pole representing the sexual nature of the relationship.  The fish in the sky depicting the sea creatures that followed them.

There is one final theory on this piece.  That the headless figure is actually making the audience question what is the reality in this picture and what is the dream like state.

Ernst’s own comments on the piece were “it is a systematic exploration of the coinsidental or artificially provoked encounter of two or more unrelated realities on an apparently inappropriate plane and the spark of poetry created by the proximity of these realities”

Regardless of how you interpret the symbolism in this piece, I like the disparate juxtapositioning, the feeling of not really knowing and the almost desolate and dominated feel of the piece.

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