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Max Ernst Collection & Lake Sentani Figures

Video clip synopsis – The indigenous art of Africa, the Americas and Oceania inspired European artists such as Jacob Epstein and Max Ernst, who in turn were an inspiration for Australian painter Albert Tucker.
Year of production - 2006
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - art, artists, Betty Churcher, collectives, surrealist, World War 2, see all tags


Max Ernst Collection & Lake Sentani Figures

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About the Video Clip


Max Ernst Collection & Lake Sentani Figures is an episode of the series Hidden Treasures (15 × 5 mins) produced in 2006.

The National Gallery of Australia has more than 100,000 works in its collection—an extraordinary reservoir of creative vision and cultural history, from decorative arts to photography and sculpture.

Yet on a visit to the gallery, you’ll see only the tip of this iceberg. Carefully stored away are the things that can’t be placed on permanent display.

These unseen gems include works of exquisite fragility, from brilliant hand-painted fabrics to delicate works on paper. From Australia, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, there are masks and carvings, lithographs and linocuts, set designs and stage costumes, sketchpads and handprinted books, marionettes and maquettes, teapots and textiles, and much, much more.

Now in this series of micro-docs, former director of the gallery Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of these 'hidden treasures’.

In the entertaining, accessible style for which she is renowned, Betty Churcher takes us behind the scenes, sharing with us her passion and insights. From her unique vantage point, she makes intriguing connections between a range of different objects and artists, linking them to the stories that surround them.

These are fascinating tales—about the works themselves, the people who created them and the challenge of preserving them—and a tantalising look at some of the ideas and influences that have shaped modern art across the globe.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full program credits

Curriculum Focus


Outcome 3
Students should be able to discuss art practice in relation to particular art form(s) and analyse ways in which artists develop distinctive style in their artwork.

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information


What kind of art does an artist collect? At the National Gallery of Australia is part of a collection once owned by European surrealist artist Max Ernst. An eclectic collection of masks and carvings from Africa and the Americas, it’s a fascinating glimpse of Ernst’s personal passions and preoccupations as an artist.

Like other surrealists, Ernst felt himself to be at the tail end of a European tradition that had for centuries been dedicated to visual realism. To his eyes, the indigenous artists he collected had by birthright what the surrealists longed for: access to human instincts that lie buried under the layers of inhibitions and societal taboos of European civilisation.

American-born British sculptor Jacob Epstein was also an avid collector. Amongst his collection were a series of imposing figures, probably from the 18th century. Dredged up from the bottom of Lake Sentani in West Papua in 1929, they once would have formed the post of a house built over its water. Now they’re part of the National Gallery’s collection.

In Australia, it was the European surrealists who most inspired a group of young artists in Melbourne as they responded in their work to the trauma of the Second World War. Among them was Albert Tucker who was appalled by the licentious behaviour he saw in the blacked-out city streets. In the gallery’s collection is his Image of Modern Evil 24, with its brilliant red crescent a symbol of female depravity. Its watcher on a balcony is as weird and inventive as anything the European surrealists came up with, but the setting—a cast-iron balcony—makes it unmistakably Australian.

Classroom Activities

  1. Research the life of Max Ernst and discuss how influences from his collection of figures and masks and other sources can be seen in his artwork.
  2. Albert Tucker was one of the artists known as the Angry Penguins. Who were some of other artists in this group and what were the characteristics of their artwork?
  3. What do the images by Max Ernst, Jacob Epstein and Albert Tucker have in common?
  4. Select paintings from each of Ernst, Epstein and Tucker. Choose symbols from the paintings and suggest possible meanings for each.
  5. Drawing on the works of Ernst, Epstein and Tucker for inspiration, create a surrealist still life from magazine collage.
    1. Using a grid enlargement, reproduce the still life image then render the collage in ink and coloured pencils or with water-soluble pencils.
  6. Create surrealist portraits or objects by combining various images inside a shape or outline that represents its inner workings. Ensure there is a focal point and show awareness of positive and negative space.
    1. You may use digital photographic portraits and appropriate graphics software for this activity. Document the process, noting your use of past skills and the new skills you have acquired.

Further Resources


M. Ryan, Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s, South Bank Centre, Hayward Gallery, London, 1988

J. Burke, Australian Gothic: A Life of Albert Tucker, Random House, Sydney, 2003

Frank Heimans (director), Australian Biography: Albert Tucker, Film Australia, Sydney, 1993

Max Ernst, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ten Dreams Fine Art Galleries: Max Ernst

Jacob Epstein

Search these sites for ‘Albert Tucker’:
National Centre for History Education: Commonwealth History Project
Heide Museum of Modern Art