Max Ernst believed that his fascination with birds stemmed from his sister being born soon after his pet bird died. He made this monumental bug-eyed, big-beaked, dark bird-idol as a mock tribute to the Jewish prophet Habakkuk’s condemnation of the makers of idols, that is, sculptors: ‘What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?’
Ernst may also have intended it to embody a perceived parallel between the visionary powers of the prophet and his own as an artist, for the plinth bears a negative impression of one of the bird’s eyes and at the foot of the figure is a third eye. The eyes were cast from a desert stone found by Roland Penrose, the English Surrealist collector, painter and poet, who gave it to Ernst in 1929.
Ernst created Habakuk’s body from casts of flowerpots, and the stacked and turning forms, the openings between them, and the lack of stable horizontal planes suggest impending movement. Its totemic form places Habakuk in the context of Ernst’s collection of art from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, 96 works of which are held in the National Gallery of Australia.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008