Synaesthetic Hieroglyphs: Max Ernst’s 1923 Tableau Poême ‘Dans une ville pleine de mystères […]’

Leanne Darnbrough, KU Leuven University

Perhaps no other visual artist of the Dada and Surrealist period worked so profoundly and adroitly with the concept of the visual pun as Max Ernst. His prolific oeuvre, which spans drawing, painting, frottage, collage, sculpture and writing, attests to his dedication to the development of a new, visual language. As Natalia Brodskaïa notes, « [i]l fallait cependant pour lui que le langage artistique réunisse deux facteurs : le naturalisme de la représentation et le secret. »[1] (‘It was however necessary that an artistic language unites two factors: that of naturalistic representation and that of the secret.’ [own translation]) While his use of the semantics of the visual has often been remarked upon, one aspect which has not received as much attention is how the synaesthesia of many of his works chimes with the Egyptmania of the wider cultural milieu and specifically with avant-garde attention to the mediality of inscription spurred by reflections on the hieroglyph. Hieroglyphic here embodies three main characteristics: (1) the image excised from its original context; (2) a blurring of the boundaries between pictorial and textual; and (3) a fascination with the ontology of the alphabetical.

Hieroglyphs as the ancient Egyptians used them were long thought to be ideographic; that is, visual representations of that which they denoted. It was not until Jean-François Champollion’s groundbreaking publication of his decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 that hieroglyphs were understood to function as primarily phonetic inscriptions. In this way, the meaning of hieroglyphic images was often shown to be radically bisected from that which was visually represented – it was generally the initial sound of what was represented which was being referred to in the image, rather than the thing itself. We can see Ernst’s playful teasing of this schism in his frequent portrayals of a headless woman. This motif lent itself to the title of his 1929 collage novel: La femme 100 têtes. The headless woman (sans tête) portrayed is described as the woman of 100 heads (cent têtes): the pun only makes sense when it is pronounced and the homophone of cent and sans reveals itself. Furthermore, the domain of the hieroglyph – which had held its semantic secrets locked in indecipherability for millennia – provided fertile ground for explorations of the tension between the naturalism and the secretive that Brodskaïa identifies as Ernst’s ultimate goal in visual expression.

One particularly relevant painting to explore in this context is Ernst’s 1923 Tableau Poême. In this painting, Ernst has inscribed a prose poem onto the canvas:

Dans une ville pleine de mystères et de poésies abrités sous des toits penchés par les nuits deux rossignols se tiennent enlacés. Le silence de l’éternel de l’éternel qui préside à leurs ébats les invite aux plus douces confidences. La nature morte se dressant au centre semble les protéger.

In a city full of mystery and poetry sheltered under roofs bent by the nights, two nightingales stand entwined. The silence of the eternal, the silence of the eternal that presides over their lovemaking invites them to the sweetest confidences. The still life standing in the centre seems to protect them. [Own translation]

The individual letters are painted to evoke shadows akin to engraving. The arrangement of the text at first appears to be written on the walls of buildings lining a street. Yet at roughly the midpoint of the painting, the text breaks perspective and slashes across the page in a diagonal, almost as if it were being acoustically emitted by the two large trumpets that occupy the right foreground of the painting. As if to ironically reinforce the impression of the text-as-noise, the second iteration of the word “Éternel” is written in a font of wavy lines, reminiscent of sound waves. The still life referred to in the text comprises two rotting pears on a rectangular table, one bulb and the aforementioned two trumpets.

The careful consideration of the arrangement of the individual letters imbricates them in the painting itself; much more than a mere caption, the material distinction between visual image and semantic text in Tableau Poême dissipates into indistinguishability. The writing on the wall inevitably calls to mind the Egyptian hieroglyphs to be found in abundance in the Karnak tombs; in 1923, Europe was still riding the crest of a wave of Egyptmania that swept across Europe in the early 20th century and culminated in Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s 1922 excavation of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

The meaning of the text written on the canvas has elements of self-referential ekphrasis and yet eludes exact interpretation. This alludes to the hieroglyphic by opening a chasm between the lexical context of the prose poem and the painted objects on the canvas to which it seems to refer. Much of what is depicted is in contrast to the poetic text; the nightingales are so miniscule as to be barely discernible; the roofs can only be pictured by imaginatively filling in spaces behind the letters; the rotting pears provoke reflections on mortality antithetical to the reiterated written references to eternity; and the imposing presence of the two trumpets calls to the viewer to hear the poetry – in contrast to the written invocation of silence. Even the ostensible clarity of block majuscule text is obscured by the myriad shadow angles, which nevertheless elicit evocations of hieroglyphs, chiseled into tomb walls. This is a poem that is also a painting, or a painting of a poem, with an insistent imagery of the auditory while speaking of silence. These are all elements tying the work to the hieroglyph: the tension between the written (particularly that which is inscribed on the walls) and the visual and the aural.

A fascination with the hieroglyph remained with Ernst. His 1964 work Maximiliana ou l’Exercise illégal de l’astronomie (Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy) includes a script “written” in a complex cryptograph with overt resonances with the hieroglyph. Thus far, Ernst’s invented alphabet has defied decipherment by scholars and semioticians, despite their decades of investigation.[2] It remains an eternal silence; testament to Ernst’s passion for teasing out the contradictions inherent to the combined media of visual art and writing.


[1] Brodskaïa, Natalia. Le Surréalisme: Genèse d’une révolution. (New York: Parkstone Press International, 2012, p. 78.

[2] Bukuts, Carina. “What Can Max Ernst’s Secret Symbols Tell Us About Surrealism?” Frieze, April 18, 2019. [accessed May 31 2021] (para. 5 of 5)

Cover image: Max Ernst, Tableau Poême (1923). Credit: private collection.

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