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Surrealist Landscapes

Discover how Surrealists explored the terrain of the subconscious mind in landscape paintings.


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Discover groundbreaking techniques in early modern landscape paintings.


Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (Deux Enfants sont menacés par un rossignol)

Max Ernst
(French and American, born Germany. 1891–1976)

1924. Oil with painted wood elements and cut-and-pasted printed paper on wood with wood frame, 27 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 4 1/2" (69.8 x 57.1 x 11.4 cm)

Max Ernst said that a “fevervision” he had experienced when he was sick with measles as a child inspired him to compose the haunting scene that unfolds in Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale. Merging collage and painting, he affixed a wooden gate, parts of a toy house, and a knob to a dreamlike painted landscape. A blue sky dominates the composition, and in it a small nightingale hovers above two young girls. One girl moves toward the nightingale, brandishing a large knife. The other lies on the verdant grass in a faint. To the right of this unfolding drama, a man steps lightly across the roof of the house. He holds a child in one arm and reaches out the other to the knob protruding at the edge of the picture, as if it will lead him to some escape from this scene.

As Ernst recalled, speaking in the third-person, his “fevervision” was “provoked by an imitation-mahogany panel opposite his bed, the grooves of the wood taking successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.” A poem he wrote shortly before making this work begins, “At nightfall, at the outskirts of the village, two children are threatened by a nightingale.” The painting features what would come to be identified as the defining preoccupations of Surrealism, a movement in which Ernst was a central figure: dreams and the unconscious; sexuality (as represented, for example, by the girl’s phallic knife); and incongruous juxtapositions.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

An act of placing things close together or side by side for comparison or contrast.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.

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Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (Deux Enfants sont menacés par un rossignol)

Max Ernst (French and American, born Germany. 1891–1976)