Between 1919 and 1920, Max Ernst was one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the Dada movement in Cologne. Before long, he attracted the attention of André Breton, who in 1921 organized an exhibition in Paris of Ernst's collages. By 1922, Ernst had moved to the French capital, and never again worked in his native country. In 1924, in Paris, the thirty-three-year-old artist became one of the founding members of the Surrealist group.
Ernst's Surrealist paintings are steeped in Freudian metaphor, private mythology, and childhood memories. One of his major themes centered on the image of the bird, which often incorporated human elements. Although some of these birds look benign, their mere presence appears to be ominous. He first coupled birds and windblown, apocalyptic animals in a series of small works entitled The Horde (1927), and he resumed the theme in 1935 in a series of even smaller paintings called The Barbarians, to which the present one belongs. In his biography of the artist, John Russell identified these creatures as expressions of Ernst's fearful anticipation of the impending devastation in Europe during World War II.
In this small painting, a gigantic, malevolent-looking bird couple marches forward with seemingly mile-long strides. The dark female leads the way as her male companion turns to look at the strange animal-perhaps their offspring-clinging to his left arm. In the far distance, a tiny woman holds onto some undefined winged being. The strange patterns on the bodies of the main figures, which evoke fossils or geological formations, are the result of grattage (scraping). In this technique, the artist coated the canvas, or in this case, a piece of cardboard, with layers of paint and while it was still wet pressed it against objects that left imprints on the surface. Afterward, he used a brush to touch up the forms thus created, or scraped away layers of pigment.