Interrogation (what kind of bird are you?)

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In this predominantly red painting, Max Ernst used black lines to outline the contours of a large and a small figure. The rest of the work is composed of a large number of small angular shapes which appear to partly overlap. They were created by placing paint onto the canvas with a palette knife or scraping it off again. Possibly Ernst also placed pieces of smooth material with a particular thickness such as card behind the canvas while he was working, and their shapes press through into the painting. The word INTERROGATION is shown in the bottom right corner and the sentence WHAT KIND OF BIRD ARE YOU? is shown upside-down at the middle of the bottom edge.

Max Ernst experimented widely with techniques. The so-called frottage technique, which is mainly used on paper, was one of his inventions. After obsessively examining the planks of the wooden floor in his hotel room on the French coast for quite a long time in 1925, he placed some pieces of paper onto the wood and started to rub over them with a pencil. The grain pressed through onto the paper. He was fascinated by the new possibilities of this technique, concerned not so much about obtaining an exact representation of the object that had been rubbed, but with the new worlds which he could create in this way. Before this he had already used the collage technique in order to put together existing material in curious combinations. In his paintings he also worked with techniques such as frottage and rubbings. In many cases he combined these with elements that were painted with a brush.

In 1919 Ernst joined Dada, a movement which rebelled against the established order and in 1924 Surrealism was founded, in which chance and the subconscious played an important role. Ernst also attached a great deal of value to these aspects. When he was fourteen he was confronted with a curious coincidence: his beloved parrot died on the night that his youngest sister was born. The bitter combination of guilt and innocence and the sinister tone often evoked by Ernst’s works could have their roots in this coincidence. The theme of the bird and the combination of the bird/man recur regularly in his work. The figures in 'Interrogation (What kind of bird are you?)' are midway between mankind and birds. The question in the title, which could be addressed both to the painted figures and to the viewer, is a typical example of Surrealist ambivalence.

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