"In the summer of 1947, Max Ernst, exuberant and inspired by the arrival of water piped to our house (up to then we had hauled it from a well five miles away), began playing with cement and scrap iron with assists from box tops, eggshells, car springs, milk cartons and other detritus. The result: Capricorn, a monumental sculpture of regal but benign deities that consecrated our ‘garden' and watched over its inhabitants." —Dorothea Tanning
Capricorn is the culmination of Max Ernst's sculptural work of the 1930s and 1940s, and the great monumental sculpture from his years in Sedona, Arizona. An original cement and scrap-iron version from 1947 served as a guardian outside a tiny concrete house that Ernst and his wife, artist Dorothea Tanning, built in Sedona in 1946. It was not until 1964 that the work was cast in bronze in an edition of six, and then it was cast again in 1975, when the Gallery's sculpture was made in an edition of two.
Capricorn refers to the tenth sign of the zodiac, usually represented by a goat with a fish tail. Ernst divided Capricorn's attributes between two figures, the horned male and the mermaid. Based on Ernst's other sculptures, the two main figures can be identified as a generic king and queen seated on their thrones. He reportedly called Capricorn a family portrait, although Tanning cast doubt on that. The couple did not have children together, but they did own two dogs, one of which may have inspired the animal in the king's lap with its long tongue hanging out.
A founding member of the Dada and surrealist movements, Ernst was always more interested in ambiguity and fantasy than in clarity and rationality. In Capricorn he pursues these modes through the use of surprising pairings and oppositions, both in process and imagery. These often produce humorous effects. One example is the king's scepter, a phallic symbol whose authority is mocked by the puzzled, puffy mask at its top, originally cast from an egg crate. (Tanning said that the scepter itself was made from milk containers, as perhaps was the king's similarly conical phallus). The king's power is further undercut by the fact that his queen is so much taller than he. Yet she is equally subject to derision: a fish or arrow appears to have penetrated her birdlike head. Her armless cello-shaped torso suggests the playability of her body, while her cantilevered tail stabilizes but also constrains her.
Ernst's process in creating Capricorn was first to make plaster casts from everyday objects and assemble them to form the different figures. He left the original cement version in Sedona when he moved to Paris in 1953 but returned with an artist friend a decade later to make molds. These shipped to Huismes, France, where he had been living since 1955. In France, Ernst made some changes and then in 1964 had a foundry cast the sculpture in bronze.
Ernst's material process of combining and recombining disparate parts of Capricorn is an extension of his long-standing fascination with hybridizing organic and inorganic forms. As one of the most innovative collage and photomontage artists of the 20th century, Ernst had long experimented with splicing together printed imagery from catalogs and magazines. His paper repertoire included figures comprised of fish, bird, animal, and inanimate parts.
Through his exploration of diverse forms, processes, and materials, Ernst created sculptures that evoke many things, while not specifying any particular one. Capricorn, for example, recalls certain elements of ancient Egyptian sculpture. Pharaohs sometimes are shown with animal heads and sit in a rigid upright pose—feet flat on the plinth—as the king does here. Ernst pays homage by quoting these traditions, but he is also playing with them: in Ernst's version, the king appears lost, sunken literally in his seat of power.
on base, proper right front: Max Ernst / E.A. II/II; on base, proper right front: SUSSE FOUNDEUR. PARIS
Marks and Labels
(Galerie Beyeler, Basel); purchased 6 December 1979 by NGA.
- Max Ernst: The Sculpture, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, California, 1992, not in cat.
- Strick, Jeremy. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture: Selections for the Tenth Anniversary of the East Building. Washington, D.C., 1989: 66, repro. 67.
- Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994: 81, repro.