The Elephant Celebes

Below the review of The Elephant Celebes –an epitome of Surrealist paintings is given verbatim. It fetched the highest marks in a course on Visual Communication and Judgment of Art

‘The Elephant Celebes’ – one of the seminal paintings by the avant-garde artist Max Ernst, is considered to pioneer the Surrealist Movement in the visual arena. Painted in 1921 during the First World War, it captures the essence of Surrealist manifesto. In essence, it wanted to depart from the long established dictum of aesthetics in meaningful beauty, to an anarchist representation of beauty. It attempted to give a flowing medium to the subconscious thoughts, especially dreams, using what is called Automatization. It owed great allegiance to Freud and his Psychoanalytic methods of interpreting dreams. Thus surrealists wanted to evoke the superior underlying current running below the distorted images to make sense, by meticulous juxtaposition. What seems at first totally abstract, after careful deliberation evokes a resembling pattern that soothes the mind.

The Elephant Celebes is at its peak to reveal the influences of various art movements in the genesis of Surrealism. The minimalistic representation using geometric curves and lines – a feature of Cubism – and totally senseless everyday objects – a feature of Dadaism – were beautifully employed to evoke a sense of coherence from anarchy – a feature of Surrealism. The everyday objects, such as a lamp’s shade an incomplete bust of a woman, hose pipes and piggy bank, appear to be placed randomly in a free flowing pattern of Automatization. Yet as Freud himself criticized, “The surrealists attempt to portray things in an abstract manner, resembling the subconscious, yet their ego is evident every time, in trying to give a sense to these abstractions, consciously or subconsciously”.


On elements of composition:

Mostly curved lines have been used, giving an overall dynamic feel. The central space is occupied by some geometrical curves; the bust on the right corner brings to relief, naturalistic ones. This dynamism is nonetheless subdued due to a grayish dull and black color. Some bright colors have been used as well to bring dynamism and transform to the abstraction of the painting. The vertical line on the left breaks symmetry from the central body and brings dynamism. The background of the image seems like a sky, but the painting has no middle ground – similar to such absence in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The elements of juxtaposition and shadows create a three dimensional representation, though some of the shadows defy angle relation to other shadows, such as the elephant’s right leg’s shadow compared to the shadows of hose pipe, vertical line at left and left leg of the elephant. The element of completeness has been challenged by placing mutilated body parts here and there, such as the arm and the leg.


5 thoughts on “The Elephant Celebes

  1. What is your source of the quote in second paragraph “The surrealists attempt to portray things in an abstract manner, resembling the subconscious, yet their ego is evident every time, in trying to give a sense to these abstractions, consciously or subconsciously.”?

  2. Hi Francis, the essence of the above statement is my understanding of the final paragraph – critiques of surrealism – at the following link “”

    The paragraph is oft quoted across sites including Wikipedia, or else Wikipedia could be the primary source for the above site as well…(last section “Freudian” at “”)

    Let me know if you are able to hunt down the actual source…

  3. one of my favourite pieces of art- absolutely love the piece- and the quote by Freud doesn’t surprise me at all- but I do disagree – my take is that he was wrong about the presence of ego in the surrealists’ work, and that this observation was a direct projection of his- my sense is that what he is referring to is the subjectivity of the artists, that is to say, their imprint, identity which isn’t really only about the ego- but about the self…. nice critique- I liked it a lot,

    1. Hi!

      Thank you for dropping by and a for very encouraging and positive note. I concur to your reference of subjectivity being imprinted rather than the general meaning of ‘ego’. I too believe that what Freud meant was this – the artists acting as a medium/vessel to channel the chaos somehow shaped it in the mould of their own world view which is kind of tautological and always true. But Freud is often given more credit than due, firstly owing to vocabulary! 😉 and secondly due to the times in which he pronounced them 🙂 – just kidding

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