The Condition of Men and Women In A World Of Celebes Elephant – Of Permanent Wars And Regressive Trivialized Pleasures

Ernst used the image of an African corn bean he found in an English anthropological journal as a model of his “Elephant of the Celebes”
William Rubin, Editor, “Primitivism In 20th Century Art”, Vol. 2, Museum of Modern Art, New-York, p. 552

Celebes 1921 Max Ernst 1891-1976 Purchased 1975
Max Ernst, “Elephant of the Celebes” (1921)

Attentive view at the painting makes us notice the extremely contradictory nature of space it represents, which, on the one side, is, as if, an existential one – for life and activities of life, but on the other, it is full of details which make it anti-existential – where is impossible to live. Is this how Max Ernst sees our earthly life (saw it already back then, almost a hundred years ago)? First of all, the painting depicts man (men), woman (women), a giant robot (the “elephant”) and the office for its management – a small mini-submarine-like machine on the back of the mechanical “elephant”. The existential space has a perspective – the view of a landscape reminding of a desert with a chain of mountains on the horizon. Only step by step we understand that this space is actually the bottom of the sea (the ocean floor), as if the “elephant” and its “headquarter” on its back were intentionally hidden to camouflage it (with military connotation). We see under-water creatures swimming above. This underwater space where soldier-man and mannequin-woman are headless (as if, returned to the time when our zoological ancestors lived in the ocean before crawling to the land) and where life is reduced to basic pantomimes of war and crude sexuality, is the area which is completely artificial – a technocratic and technologically obsessed civilization in its essence. It looks like a construction site for building a giant military robot that stands, as if, on some kind of floor-desk, with some details suggesting the work of geometric thinking which makes the space inside the painting also mental – creation/construction and in this sense imaginary and futuristic.

But what is exactly Ernst’s Celebes Elephant? It is, it seems, not only a robot as a weapon system, but a robotic potential of the human mind, a purely technical and calculative thinking about life and the world, symbolized by high-tech, intimidating and destructive machine, the task of which is not only to destroy but to frighten and subdue even before being deployed in its full power. Ernst’s very painting, it seems, created the opportunity for the viewers-Ernst contemporaries to observe the horrifying robotic future of our specie – that is already partially realized in the very beginning of 21st century. Pay attention to the sadistic features of the “elephant”, like its horned trunk (its tusks seen on its other side), that is simultaneously a head and a tale. The absence of differentiation between the front side of the monster and its back suggests the identity between oral and anal functions, consumption and excretion.

Its crude sadistic appearance makes Celebes Elephant carry the connotation of being a torture machine. Was Ernst trying to warn his contemporaries about the future of human race? If so, he was right on target – we in the 21st century can be his witnesses. Ernst here is emphasizing not so much human civilization’s future destructiveness as its orientation on it – sadism of those who plan and order, construct and are happy about the destructive effectiveness of monstrous weapon systems, those for whom it is the favorite toys of human imagination and who will be happy to use them with cheerful pride.

The brains of the monster-robot is located at the end of its weapon-trunk or/and its weapon-tale. The construction on the back of the Celebes Elephant seems including software created by human brains in rapport with that of the Elephant. The face we see inside it is the face of the software – the standard face of all the soft-wares today, a face not without its cute expression – even destructive technical toys are childlike.

The “elephant” is underwater because it is supposed to be hidden, unseen by the “enemies” and the philistines of the world “until the proper time”. Masses of ordinary people just survived WWI, know nothing about Nazism in Germany and the coming of WWII and then immediately nuclear weapons, and they dream, as always, about prosperity and happiness under any political conditions. Is it for them that Ernst painted “Elephant of the Celebes”? Did he want to awaken them and us, their progeny, to the unbearable, impossible truth about human civilization committed to human sacrifices in wars and predatory consumption during the episodes of peace, to wars to become masters of the defeated? Did he want to change them to become more psychologically spiritual? If so, Ernst, certainly didn’t succeed much. Philistines today, in the 21st century are blinder and greedier than ever.

The semantic heart of the painting consists of the two figures – of man and woman, more exactly, it is in what has happened to these two halves of human race as a result of happy hate and belligerency in our culture. Man of the 20th century is personified by the mechanical figure of the male (to the right of the painting) assembled in nine parts, five model the basic human body parts, plus the one head (flat as a thin piece of plywood), one hand (the piece of wood) keeping on the imaginary shoulder a slat representing rifle, and other piece of wood painted in red, representing an erected penis joggling a little ball signifying the sperm sent to the world by the (soldier’s) gonads. The schematic representation of the soldier by Ernst characterizes only what is minimally necessary for being a soldier. That’s how soldiers are prepared for killing and being killed – human complications are not necessary. Ernst’s style here is realistic in its surrealism.

But soldiers need sex, and they need to love women. They are hungry for love, they need love for getting the feeling that they are loved by life. Who kills and is ready to be killed especially needs consolation and procreation – so as not to disappear traceless in a giant mass grave. Soldiers desperately look for immortality through their progeny. The head (flattened by jingoistic dogmatism helping psychologically to sustain war), the hand (to keep weapon), the rifle and the erected member are the four attributes Ernst adds to the five segments of the basic body of the soldier. Soldiers need symbiosis with women’s bodies (then they become, as if, more than their bodies vulnerable to enemy’s attack). Like soldiers, the females are also transformed by wars – into statuesque mannequins corresponding to the mechanical condition of the males. Women are transformed from human beings into bodies which men desperately need as a consolation for living in between life and death. Female bodies as instruments of men’s consolation became like a statuesque mannequins – robots of amorous pantomimes.

Ernst depicts in “Elephant of the Celebes” this pantomime of love modified by war times, by borrowing his inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen‘s short story “The Brave Tin Soldier” about a doomed love between a steadfast tin soldier and a gracious paper ballerina. Ernst has resourcefully developed Andersen’s concept into adult interpretation of the tragic impossibility of love crippled by war. In a world of perpetual war humankind habitually live in, woman provides her soldier the soft ball of orgasmic ejaculation, while both genders are similarly without human heads (which are flattened by military training and war time propaganda into a piece of plywood). So much for love between robot-soldier and mannequin-woman. In the painting there are no equivalents of the teary sentiments of Andersen’s story. The writer addressed the audience of children with hope for their future, but Ernst is courageously communicating to us in new century his horror and despair.

The soft ball the mannequin-ballerina passes to the soldier is a combined metaphor of his ejaculation and his orgasm. Ultimately, the painting is about a debased psychological condition of men and women in periods of war and preparation for and celebration of war.