Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press,301 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
National Academy of Design Museum/Hatje Cantz,192 pp., $40.00
Not only is Max Ernst the subject of an extensive and eye-challenging retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is winning retrospective publicity as a romantic principal in a shameless, artistically high-powered ménage à trois in the early 1920s, lyrically and speculatively described by the documentary filmmaker Robert McNab in his Ghost Ships. The known facts are not numerous: Ernst, born in the town of Brühl, Germany, near the Rhine between Bonn and Cologne, into a large, middle-class, Catholic family, whose father was a teacher of deaf and mute children and an amateur painter, studied philosophy and abnormal psychology at the University of Bonn. At the age of twenty he decided to become a painter and joined August Macke’s Rhine Expressionist group. In 1919, having served four years in the Kaiser’s army and risen to the rank of lieutenant, he helped found, with Johannes Theodor Baargeld, the Cologne Dada movement. Increasingly well-known in art circles, and acquainted with such prominent German-speaking artists as Paul Klee, Hans Arp, George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Otto Dix, he experimented with collage.
In 1921 his collages won him a solo show in Paris, but visa trouble in post-war Germany prevented him from attending. The exhibition, organized by André Breton, attracted enthusiasm among the French Surrealists; later that year the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his Russian wife, Gala, visited Cologne with the express purpose of meeting Ernst. A photograph was taken during the meeting, showing Max and Luise Ernst with their small son, Jimmy, the two Éluards, and the painter Baargeld. Already a prophetic note of cozy trespass was struck: Gala posed wearing the German Iron Cross, the military decoration which Ernst had won. Éluard, too, four years younger than the thirty-year-old Ernst, had fought (and been severely gassed) in the war. He said, “Max and I were at Verdun together and used to shoot at each other.” According to Robert McNab,
The imaginative and moral sympathy of the two men was immediate. They also felt an instant urge to collaborate, to improvise like jazz musicians, so that Éluard quickly selected eleven collages by Ernst as illustrations for his next book of poems…. He also bought a large canvas, the Elephant of Celebes, that accompanied him to Paris with Gala. These were the first of many collaborations in book form and the first of hundreds of works Éluard purchased from Ernst.
Éluard, whose poetry has weathered better than all but a few creations by the Paris Surrealist group, was unusual among these bohemians in that he had ample money and a job; he worked for his father, a Parisian property developer. More collaborations with Ernst followed, and more trips to Cologne. When Gala and Ernst began to sleep together was not recorded, but a photograph exists, probably from March of 1922, showing Gala standing between the two men, slightly closer to Ernst than to her husband. All are on skis; the photographer may have been Luise Straus-Ernst, who was later to …