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.
Surrealism was a thinking man’s movement. The poet Robert Desnos wrote, “Pour toujours la peinture est grosse de parole, la parole de peinture“—“For always painting is pregnant with words, and words with painting”—and to an unparalleled degree artists in the two media collaborated and crossbred under Surrealism’s banner. For the viewer it too often means an uneasy wait in front of a rebus-like canvas in hopes that its verbal meaning will dawn. Celebes needs no help from words, and is beyond them. The influence of De Chirico, whom Ernst discovered in 1919, is happily at work here, subduing the German’s magpie mind to a single dominant image, sturdily shadowed and outlined in black.
Saint Cecilia (1923), playing an invisible organ and half-enclosed in rough tan masonry, is one of a series of encased women. This one seems less a victim than most; her delicate hands hover in mid-air at the same level as the nearby bird thrillingly standing on its tail. Woman, Old Man and Flower (1924), a bit of a jumble as its title suggests, with its peg-legged lion-man and fan-shaped great headdress, is structured by a sequence of verticals and swept together into a kind of beckoning by the calligraphically outlined arms of the transparent central figure: some invisible force is being welcomed. The Forest (circa 1924) presents one of his recurrent themes—Ernst was born among the Rhine forests—with the jagged boldness of Max Beckmann. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1936), a borrowed title he was to use more than once, takes a leaf less from Manet’s than from Picasso’s book in its elastic distortions and neoclassic air; it has among its pale gargoyles the round-eyed cartoon bird that, under the name Loplop, was to inspire a Dadaesque series early in the decade.
Birds, rendered in contours that from across the room suggest the deformed and foreshortened nudes of Francis Bacon, take an especially alien form in his two paintings of identical style and title, Monument to the Birds (both 1927); suspended rather than flying, the birds seem wooden forms torn from a baroque organ. Blind Swimmer: Effect of Touch (1934) is one of Ernst’s rare abstractions, and a brilliant one, of a striped curtain agreeably rough to the eye yet flowing like water around the two interruptions, a white lens and a peacock-feather eye.
Nearly as abstract, A Night of Love (1927), painted the year he married his second wife, née Marie Berthe Aurenche, took its main lines from paint-soaked strings tossed onto the canvas, but seems unusually personal and vital nevertheless, with stylized breasts and grasping hands scattered on a brown blanket while one lover’s teeth, two glowing arcs in an emptied head, join the nocturnal background of stars. The Bride of the Wind, from the same year, seems also exuberant and ethereal, a horse galloping itself to pieces. His bride was the product of a convent education and ultra-respectable parents; they at first tried to get Ernst arrested for interfering with a minor.
The original exhibition including Ernst’s assaultive painting The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E., and the Artist (1926) was closed by church pressure because of it; at the Met, alone on a large wall and protected by glass against possible Christian vandals, it exerts a sensuous spell. Perhaps Ernst was spurred by memories of his Catholic boyhood to revel in the intensely local colors, the delicately painted haloes (the Virgin’s casts a dotted shadow on her hair; that of the Infant Jesus is jarred loose onto the floor), and such tender details as the blush on the Christ child’s spanked buttocks, the Pieroesque tinted planes of the outdoor environment, and Mary’s impossibly widespread bare feet, blurred as if by the vigor of her discipline, which is administered with a gesture reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Christ imposing the Last Judgment. While this scene cannot be enrolled in Christian iconography—it has no Gospel authority, for one thing—Ernst has created something iconic, which all who take seriously the doctrine of the Incarnation, and all it entails, cannot lightly dismiss.*
Ernst was a zealous technician, who after mastering collage went on to frottage, the producing of an image by rubbing a relief, and grattage, the same process applied to scraped paint. Both these methods of making marks tend, in my view, to produce stiff and standoffish results, though in The Petrified City (1935) and its superior successor The Entire City (1935–1936) the buildings, formed by the grattage of Rajput wood blocks used for printing muslin, do loom under their huge full moons as ominous memories, perhaps, of Angkor Wat’s immense ruins, or as contemporary foreboding at the rise of fascism, with its merciless architecture.
The technique oddly named decalcomania, however, was very fruitful for Ernst, figuring in several masterpieces around the time of his narrow escape from Europe. The process, related to the monoprint, was invented by his fellow Surrealist Oscar Dominguez and involved putting paints on canvas, pressing a sheet of paper or glass upon them, and then lifting. The effect, as described by Pepe Karmel in a catalog essay, “pushes and pulls the colors into strange, visceral ridges, like those on the surface of a sponge.” As manipulated by Ernst in Totem and Taboo (1941), Napoleon in the Wilderness (1941), and, with supreme effect, Europe after the Rain (1940–1942), the effect is of coral or rotted rock spun out into structures populated, with the artist’s fine and patient brush, by growths and creatures and human survivors in the sinister wreckage. Europe after the Rain, we are told, was begun by Ernst in a European prison camp and finished in the United States—a precarious transit, in that dire time, for a crusty canvas two feet by five.
The year 1940 saw the production of the one canvas that must have a place of honor in any history of Surrealism, the magnificent The Robing of the Bride (see illustration on page 4). Decalcomania contributes to the uncanny texture of the bride’s feathery orange robe and of the female attendant’s trapezoidal headdress. Both women are naked, with long ivory-white legs that augur well for the unseen groom’s happiness, but something has gone fearfully wrong with the bride’s head: it is much too small, and sits atop her petite, appetizing breasts like a shrunken head worn as a neck amulet. But perhaps it is not her head; a single eye peeks through a bulky hood of feathers capped by an owl’s cruel beak and staring eyes. In the bridal chamber, with its checkerboard floor as in a late-medieval palace, hangs a miniature version of the same scene, without the attendants, and the long white leg and torso emerging from not a robe of feathers but a heap of corroded minerals.
The tableau is erotic and menacing, and pierces close to the heart of Ernst’s only partially friendly feelings concerning the fair sex, with which he was so successful. The work hangs in the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice; after a brief farmhouse idyll with the English artist and writer Leonora Carrington ended in Ernst’s being interned by the French as an enemy alien, it was Guggenheim who managed to get him out of Europe and who became, in New York, the third Mrs. Ernst.
Decalcomania figures, too, among the teeming array of techniques employed in The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1945), in which Ernst declares his German heritage by managing to out-Grünewald Grünewald and out-Bosch Bosch. As Robert Storr points out in his catalog essay, where Grünewald gave his saint a fighting chance against these diabolical apparitions from the animal world, Ernst’s Anthony is being helplessly consumed by what seems a swarm of magnified lice—the artist was, as we know from his earliest collages, a connoisseur of magnification as illustrated in biological texts. His compulsively horrific painting won a competition, sponsored by a moviemaker, over entries by Dalí, Ivan Albright, and Dorothea Tanning, who became Ernst’s fourth wife in 1946. Among the other canvases produced in America, Surrealism and Painting (1942) struck me as oddly consummate; Ernst’s rather arid and logo-like simplified birds have become flamingoes of a sort, iridescent and obscenely flexible, snuggling into one another while a long-necked hand works away at a canvas displaying the artist’s newest resort to technical sorcery: the mathematically pure ellipses formed by a swinging paint can.
In addition to paintings there are Ernst’s celebrated collages, at which museumgoers dutifully squinted, bemused by a parade of ungettable jokes. Ernst fashioned them with remarkable care, rendering the seams all but invisible, and with an excel-lent, unwrinkling glue. A furiously energetic melodrama surges through these nineteenth-century woodcuts—wood engravings, more exactly, mass-produced for popular magazines and novels before the advent of photoengraving. A fanatic precision guided Ernst’s hand as he grafted birds’ and lions’ heads onto these agitated scenes, wreaking mutilation and metamorphosis upon the frock-coated, mustached men and the déshabillées maidens caught in some Gothic tale’s toils. But how much of the hybrids’ aesthetic interest—their perverse beauty—should be credited to the original illustrators and painstaking engravers? A fair amount, I decided after leafing through my own copy of Une Semaine de Bonté. Onto these mass-produced popular materials Ernst soldered an inscrutable message, dredged, he confessed, from dreams and childhood memories. The effect is a childish, sadistic one, of an insatiable, ingenious taunting.
And there are sculptures, some of which—the horned chess-player titled The King Playing with the Queen (1944)—are familiar and others of which—Bird Head (1934–1935), Moonmad (1944)—go somewhat beyond what he learned from the young Giacometti. The stone sculptures with which he decorated the desert home he shared with Tanning were present only in photographs in the last room of the retrospective. His life’s journey arrived, for a time, at the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona—dépaysement with a vengeance. But enlarged photos of Ernst in ripe middle age show that though he sported an American tan he carried himself with a Puckish poise that only a European man could project. He and Tanning returned to France in 1953, where he became a legal French citizen and, heavy with years and honors, died in Paris.
A short walk up Fifth Avenue brings us to the soon-to-close exhibit Surrealism USA, at the National Academy of Design Museum. Squeezed into a few floors, the show lacks the Metropolitan’s scale yet offers, to an American, considerable delectation and food for thought. Surrealism, goaded into national notice by frequent flamboyant invasions by Dalí and his pushy wife, the former Gala Éluard, had a vogue in the Thirties, but in pragmatic American fashion was harnessed to social protest. Walter Quirt and James Guy dramatized oppressed workers, O. Louis Guglielmi imagined a Brooklyn Bridge bombed by enemies of democracy, Peter Blume (in Eternal City, a mid-Thirties panorama that used to have a prime spot among the Modern’s moderns) deplored Mussolini, and Alexander Hogue, in the exhibit’s most startling image, depicted a giant nude formed of white clay exposed by topsoil erosion (Erosion No. 2—Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936).
Many of the Americans do excellent imitations of Dalí’s open spaces, slick surfaces, and conjunctions—to quote the Comte de Lautréamont’s premonitory phrase—“of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Several artists—Joseph Cornell, Ivan Albright—are native eccentrics who fit the bill well enough to be included here. American art in general, whose primal memory is of the encounter with a hostile wilderness, takes to surreal exaggerations and metaphors; but its Puritan work ethic has little use for the playful self-indulgence behind Parisian Surrealism, a use of deliberate dérèglement as a path to fresh enlightenment. Such reckless introspection was a sport for university students and idle bohemians.
The exhibit not only includes a few untypically mystical and lovely abstractions by Arshile Gorky but a host of early works by names—Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston—that acquired fame as Abstract Expressionists. The sculptors Caldwell, Noguchi, and David Smith, awkward and ironical here, went on to a triumphal monumentality. Though its paintings on the wall had a fussy, troubling intellectuality—a willful ugliness, even—compared with an Impressionist or abstract canvas, Surrealism was the cradle of the postwar American art boom. Nor did Surrealism ever, in the subsequent half-century, quite go away. Indeed, as I stared, from within the taxi to the airport, at the folk murals on the brick walls of East Harlem—NUESTRO BARRIO, one boasted, and another, yoking a Godlike figure with an American flag, WE NEVER LOST POWER—and noted the conventionalized bulbous and floating letter forms of graffiti, it seemed possible that Surrealism is the natural, instinctive pictorial mode, and both abstraction and realism are academic refinements.
May 26, 2005
See the article by Leo Steinberg (The New York Review, May 13, 1993) concerning this painting; Steinberg makes the surprising point that the “three witnesses” (André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the artist) are none of them witnessing the shocking scene. The two French poets are pointedly looking elsewhere, and the artist, from his background vantage, is watching us, the viewers. Steinberg wrote, “The painting is engineered to embarrass: so long as I look, I am exposed to the artist’s accusing gaze as he watches the churl in me trapped in the act of ogling a sacrilege—a provocation which my betters scorn to acknowledge.” ↩