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 write of
this slippery, scintillating creature with cascading black hair, luminous and vaguely oriental eyes, delicate bones, who, not having succeeded in drawing her husband into an affair with me in order to appropriate Max for herself, finally decided to keep both men, with the loving consent of Éluard.
By the summer of 1922 the affair, and Éluard’s complaisance, were public knowledge. Dominique Bona, in her 1995 biography Gala, describes Gala (in French) as “the benchmark of their friendship, as their means of communication with each other, as their shared wife. They made love to each other in her.”
In August, Ernst left his wife and son in Germany and, traveling illegally on Éluard’s passport, moved in with the Éluards in their home in Saint-Brice, a suburb of Paris. He never lived in Germany again. Luise, whom Max had met in art school before the war and married soon after it, was the daughter of a prosperous Jewish milliner who had disapproved of his son-in-law. Finally divorced from Max in 1926, she became a museum curator until ousted by the Nazis; she joined the resistance, was arrested, and died in Auschwitz. Their son, Jimmy, fondly called Minimax to go with his father’s nickname, Dadamax, became a Surrealist painter in California.
Ernst’s painting thrived in the ménage, but the gentle Éluard showed signs of stress, drinking late in bars and nightclubs and, in McNab’s telling, “falling asleep at his friends instead of going home, where Ernst and his wife seemed the resident couple.” Eighteen months after Ernst moved in, Éluard one evening “got up from the bistro table to buy some matches, walked out and vanished from Paris.” He was on his way to the Far East, and at his urging Gala followed four months later, bringing Ernst with her. She auctioned off a sizable part of her husband’s painting collection to buy the steamer tickets.
Only a few photographs and brief communications survive from that traveling year of 1924. McNab fills the huge gap by writing, very interestingly, about steamships and their ports of call, about the huge French colony of Indochina, about the call of the Pacific from the eighteenth-century French explorers to the painter Gauguin, the poet Saint-Pol-Roux, and the anti-Eurocentric, culturally relativistic traveler Victor Segalen. Surrealism, McNab argues, began as travel, more or less random, as a trance-inducing escape from the bourgeois Europe that had given the younger generation World War I. In early June 1919 Breton and Philippe Soupault walked all night through Paris,
and at dawn agreed jointly to write something to evoke the peculiar state of mind the experience had induced…. At times they wrote for ten hours on end, breaking off for fresh air to roam the streets again in a daze.
Other nocturnal rambles, enhanced by cannabis and cocaine, followed; by 1922, Breton was advising his readers, in a short piece titled Lâchez Tout,
Drop everything…. Drop your wife, drop your girl-friend…. Park your children in the woods…. Drop your comfortable life…. Take to the road.
It was all about dépaysement, according to McNab: the word
translates literally as being outside your own country, but its meaning also encompasses exile and disorientation….. Dépaysement also defined a favored Surrealist mood, the feeling we all get when we arrive somewhere new for the first time, our senses sharpened by wonder and tinged with anxiety.
The exhaustion as well as the disorientation of travel was courted as a means to fresh perceptions. Surrealists walked from Paris to Blois, and took steamers to Cuba, the Amazon, the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Freud had discovered a new territory within, the subconscious, and dreams, drugs, word games, séances, automatic writing, virtually random collage, and impulsive exotic travel were ways of exploring it. There was a political dimension to dépaysement: direct experience of France’s Pacific colonies confirmed the Surrealists’ antagonism to the jingoistic, often brutally exploitative colonizers, and to the European establishment.
Of course, breaking through the shell of reason and accepted order to profounder truths beneath is an idea as old as shamanistic trances, Greek oracles, and the mind-emptying exercises of yoga and zen. Rimbaud, along with Gauguin a stellar example of self-exile, in 1871 had famously asserted that the poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and deliberate “dérèglement de tous les sens.”
Gala, Ernst, and Éluard achieved a dérèglement of social custom with their ménage and their escape to Saigon, where the three reassembled. Back in Paris, Éluard described it as a voyage idiot, a stupid trip, and in fact their triune rapport was never the same. Ernst returned later than the Éluards and took up separate residence in a Montmartre studio; Éluard entered a tuberculosis sanitarium, from which he wrote Gala longing letters, while she had entered into a period of intensified promiscuity and a campaign, successful, to captivate Salvador Dalí. When this was achieved, she made remarks that McNab translates as “Didn’t I do well to ditch Max Ernst: he’s a loser. But as for Dalí, just look at the success he’s become since I took over!” The French for “he’s a loser” was “il n’arrivera à rien“—“he’ll come to nothing” or “he’ll arrive nowhere.” Life is a journey. One of Éluard’s poems to Gala during their separation began, “At the end of a long journey, I can still see that corridor, that gloomy burrow, that warm darkness where a breeze blows in drifting off the surf.”
What the trio did in French Indochina, besides pose for a Saigon street photographer and make the difficult trip to Angkor Wat, remains mysterious. Éluard burned all Gala’s letters to him, and hers to Ernst are lost; only her actions speak for her. Of the three, Ernst seems the coolest, the blankest. Gala had the satisfaction of being desired by two men at once, and Éluard that of his steadfast forbearance and affection; Ernst’s role is purely that of a taker—of the younger man’s wife, house, and patronage. Only his artistic diligence was admirable.
The show at the Metropolitan is itself a long-enough voyage to induce some trancelike feelings, as we wind, “our senses sharpened by wonder and tinged with anxiety,” through the Tisch Galleries and the multiple switchbacks of Ernst’s techniques and styles. The show quits, in fact, well before Ernst did; only a few displayed works follow the artist back to France after his American sojourn between 1941 and 1953; he lived and produced for more than twenty more years, dying one day short of his eighty-fifth birthday on April 1, 1976. The 175 items—paintings, collages, sculptures—on view are almost all meticulous and inventive, but Ernst was not a very pleasing painter. A German dryness (see The Emperor of Wahaua, circa 1920, and Oedipus Rex, 1922) clings to his brushwork, and his drawing has a stilted quality that makes Dalí and Magritte, say, look like Renaissance masters. His cleverness with picture-generating gadgetry covers up the relative sparseness of his formal artistic education.
The canvases that a viewer can wholeheartedly cherish are relatively few. Beginning, at the age of twenty-two, with a naive scene of a family embedded in a forest, wryly called Immortality (circa 1913), and moving, after the war, to gaudily colored animals and villages in the manner of Chagall or Franz Marc (Town with Animals, 1919), Ernst arrived, in 1921—having momentarily put aside Dadaesque collage and fantastic mechanical drawings in the style of Kurt Schwitters—at the painting that Paul Éluard purchased: Celebes, in which the form of a Sudanese corn bin is transformed into a blue-green elephant, its thick ringed hose of a trunk ending in a white cuff shaped like a crown. A chalky headless nude in the lower right corner and several fish swimming in the sky in the upper left submit the requisite Surrealist credentials; but this canvas in its firmly rounded central enigma manifests a presence achieved through painterly rather than quasi-literary means.