A founding member of the Surrealist group in Paris, German-born Max Ernst (1891–1976) was one of the most inventive artists of the twentieth century. His paintings, steeped in Freudian metaphors, private mythology, and childhood memories, are regarded today as icons of Surrealist art. Comprising some 180 works, this exhibition—the first retrospective to be shown in New York in thirty years—includes his most important paintings, his celebrated collages, drawings, sculptures, and illustrated books lent by private and public collections in Europe and the United States.
Ernst's famous proto-Surrealist paintings from the period of evolution from Dada into Surrealism are among the highlights featured in the exhibition. Based on the method of collage, they are built of separate elements that create strange images, combining threat, comedy, and dream. Most famous among them are the iconic paintings created between 1921 and 1923, including Celebes (1921, Tate Modern, London), in which a hulking, horned elephantine creature, part machine and part beast, stands on a vast plain against a cloudy sky, gazing at a headless female nude. In Ubu Imperator (1923, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), an anthropomorphic top dances in a vast, empty landscape. Such works might be said to capture early on the Surrealist notion of estrangement.
Other works from this period deal with themes of blindness and entrapment. In Saint Cecilia (1923, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), the patron saint of music and the blind is encased in a structure that covers her eyes and constricts her entire body, save her arms, which are outstretched to play an invisible keyboard. In The Wavering Woman (1923, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf), a large creature that could be either human or an automaton is engulfed by an electrical charge. In Oedipus Rex (1922, private collection), male fingers, pierced by a mechanical device, emerge through an open square in an enclosed brick structure and balance above the heads of two trapped, birdlike creatures.
Ernst's great technical refinement is on display in A Night of Love (1927, private collection). The artist dipped strings of various strengths in water and then dropped them onto the canvas. From the remaining traces of these strings, he created the image of a couple wrapped in a starry night sky.
Particularly significant are the artist's collage novels, narratives made up of disparate images culled from nineteenth-century engravings and combined in unsettling compositions. Among the novels included in the exhibition are La Femme 100 têtes (1929, The Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library), Rêve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (1930, Collection Timothy Baum, New York), and Une semaine de bonté (1934, The Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library).
The artist's subsequent works incorporate the techniques—popularized by the Surrealists and used most memorably by Ernst—of frottage (making a rubbing from a textured surface), grattage (frottage applied to painting), and decalcomania (manipulation of a still wet painting by pressing a second surface against it and then pulling it away). In the paintings, Ernst explores the themes of the forest and the distant city, which poignantly foreshadow the political storm clouds gathering over Europe. For example, in The Fireside Angel (1937, private collection), Ernst reacts directly to the menacing rise of Fascism.
Foreboding and memory characterize many of the remarkable paintings created by the artist during his time in the United States from 1941 to 1953. The large-scale Vox Angelica (1943, private collection) can be interpreted today as a manifesto on European art in exile, with its evocation of the life that had to be left behind when artists fled the advance of the war.
The exhibition is made possible by ALTANA.
The exhibition catalogue is made possible by the Doris Duke Fund for Publications and the Mary and Louis S. Myers Foundation.
An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, in Brühl, a small German town located near the Rhine River between Bonn and Cologne. His father, Philipp Ernst, a devout Catholic and an academic painter, was a teacher at a school for the deaf. Max Ernst, an avid reader, studied philosophy, history of art, literature, and psychology at the University of Bonn from 1909 to 1914. Highly intelligent and imaginative, he initially began painting in a naive Expressionist style that mingled aspects of Cubism with Futurism.
From 1914 to 1917, during World War I, Ernst served in the German army on both the western and eastern fronts. He continued painting in the Expressionist style until the summer of 1919, when he saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico reproduced in the magazine Valori Plastici. This encounter with the melancholy, magical, and empty cityscapes of the Italian artist proved decisive for Ernst's later artistic development, as he became one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the Dada movement in Cologne. Before long, his remarkable Dada collages attracted the attention of the French poets and writers André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard in Paris, who saw in these works analogies to their own poetic experiments.
In 1921, Breton organized an exhibition of Ernst's Dada collages in Paris, and in 1922, Ernst moved to the French capital, never to work again in his native country. Three years later, in 1924, the thirty-three-year-old artist became one of the founding members of the Surrealist group. The proto-Surrealist paintings that he created between 1921 and 1923, first in Cologne and later in Paris, are now regarded as signature works of the movement. Composed of illusionistic but irrational scenes, they evoke dreams and hallucinations but defy interpretation. These powerful images later influenced the early works of Tanguy, Masson, Magritte, and Dalí among others.
The artist's collages are even more representative of the Surrealist movement. In them, Ernst combined cutout details from a variety of sources, including nineteenth-century engravings from popular novels and mail-order catalogues, and botanical and scientific prints from teaching-aid catalogues. These transformed images are fantastic, magical, sometimes disquieting, and always surprising.
In 1941, escaping the Nazi threat in Europe, Max Ernst arrived in the United States. First in New York, and later in Sedona, Arizona, he created remarkable paintings and sculptures. In 1953, Ernst returned permanently to Europe, and died in Paris in 1976, one night before his eighty-fifth birthday.