The Barbarians Max Ernst Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Barbarians is a symbolic painting executed in 1937 by Max Ernst. The painting measures 24 x 33 centimetres.

In the Barbarians, an enormous, malevolent-looking bird couple are marching forward with mile-long strides. The female in the painting is leading the way as her companion turns around to look at a strange animal clinging to his arm. This animal seems to be their offspring. In the far distance, there is a small woman holding onto an undefined winged being.

There are strange patterns on the main figures' bodies evoking geological or fossil formation caused by scraping (grattage). In this technique, Ernst used layers of paint to coat a piece of cardboard. While it was still wet, he pressed it against objects, leaving imprints on the surface. He then touched up the forms with a brush to scrape away or create layers of pigment.

The painting symbolises how democracy transformed into barbarism. The gesture of the dark woman-bird with her strong right hand like she is keeping the celestial dome of the sky in the palm of her hand depicts how barbarians have always believed that they are the island of Atlas keeping the heaven from falling. This means without them, the universe will shatter and the gods really need their help. The other figure in the painting, the man-octopus, is warming up before beginning his military advance on the land owned by humans. He intends to conquer human's lives, their way of life, cultural traditions and all the things they produce, invent and love. As a representative of the neo-conservative future family, they are covered and kept safe by a protective carapace of a high-tech impenetrable military armour.

According to the artist, barbarians are a combination of super-life and under-life. What they do not have, know or hate beforehand is often middle-life on the earth and humanity in its humility, nobility and relativity. They are children of paradise and hell - a monstrous combination of the two. This means that they are under - and super-human, but not completely human. Their ambition and wealth are from heaven, while their ruthlessness and rage are from hell. The task of the male cannibal is to tear down human life middle ground. The dark female will bring paradise to the universe by creating apocalyptic hell. Then the male cannibal will protect the hellish paradise against the remains of the human race.