More than merely surreal

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MoMA’s Max Ernst exhibition captivates


  • In Max Ernst's "Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale" incongruous elements create psychological tension. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A folio from "65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Gallery view of Max Ernst: Beyond Painting with "The King Playing with the Queen.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • The curators point out that Ernst was fascinated by microscopic images which were just being published in the early 20th century. In "The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses," Ernst overpainted an educational print depicting cells. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Max Ernst, "An Anxious Friend (Un ami empressé)," bronze, 1944. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • In 1923, Ernst painted "Woman, Old Man, and Flower," and a year later, added the mysterious semi-transparent central figure. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • "Lunar Asparagus" a white-painted bronze Ernst sculpture with "The Blind Swimmer.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • To create "The Sea," Ernst plastered over burlap, painted with an atomizer, and then incised, scraped and painted a silvery moon rising above an abstract horizon. Photo: Adel Gorgy

In “Max Ernst: Beyond Painting” on view through January 1, the Museum of Modern Art is taking the opportunity to show a recent acquisition with the unlikely title of “65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy.” The 34 aquatints which comprise this illustrated book use a form of concrete poetry, where the placement of letters on the page (here cross-hatched like roads, or descending in cupped shapes like falling petals) create a visual poem which join with drawings or pictograms in complex, mysterious creations. Some even use an Ernst-invented written language. The invention of a secret alphabet was not much of a stretch for an artist who regularly transgressed, as the title states, beyond painting.

Curators Starr Figura and Anne Umland, with curatorial assistant Talia Kwartler, have taken the book as a starting point, or in the geography of the exhibition, a grand finale, for a survey of this important 20th century master. Ernst (1891–1976) was a founder of both the Dada and Surrealist movements, and his brushstrokes and gestures, both artistic and intellectual deeply influenced both European and American art. In the paintings, collages, drawings, prints and sculptures on display, one experiences the senses of isolation and irrationality that color Dada and Surrealism. Confusing landscapes, enigmatic texts and lonely figures (or machines or creatures or strange hybrids that resemble them) are the norm.

We in the 21st century have the blessing of some distance from the angst and horrors of the two world wars. European artists of the early 20th century did not. The trauma of the wars painted the literary, artistic, poetic and cultural landscape with colors and imagery that seem incomprehensible, because they are.

German-born, French and then later American émigré artist, Max Ernst was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories about dreams, and was fascinated by the subconscious, primal emotions and forms of automatic painting. As a young man he studied philosophy, poetry and art, but, in World War I was drafted into an artillery division in the German army and sent to the trenches on both the Eastern and Western fronts. After the war, first in Cologne, then later in Paris and in New York, he created subversive, questioning, yet deeply thoughtful works.

Part of the focus of the exhibition is the endlessly creative ways in which Ernst utilized the materials and tools of art. With titles like “The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses” and works that use techniques such as frottage, grattage and decalcomania (which the curators explain as rubbing graphite on paper placed over objects 659[frottage], scraping wet paint on canvas [grattage], and pressing paper or glass against wet paint to create chance-based textures [decalcomania]) there are certain to be novel experiences and revelations for almost every visitor.

The exhibition of about 100 works is drawn from the museum’s collection and includes masterpieces like the early Surrealist painting/assemblage, “Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale” from 1924. From its clear blue sky emerge a gate, a building whose doorknob resembles a cleaver, a woman running with a knife, a man escaping on the roof with a baby and the outlines of distant architectures of authority — arches and domes. About the only non-threatening element is a nightingale. What questions does it raise? What answers, if any, does it offer? What emotions does it evoke?

A nearby suite of drawings titled “Natural Histories” offers both alternative histories and alternative nature. There’s a sphinx with a bird’s head, and lightning bolts coming from a dragonfly. Also on view are books and folios that present strange, fanciful creatures like smiling fish or newt-bearing spectacled puffins which hint at the artist’s playful nature.

Powerful, totemic sculptures in bronze suggest the influences of Cubism as well as African art, while being imbued with the artist’s own sensibility and interests. Ernst was deeply involved with the game of chess, as can be seen in “The King Playing with the Queen” which is rife with references to structures of power. A lovely moment in the exhibition is the placement of “The Blind Swimmer” with its vague but clearly biomorphic, reproductive imagery which can be seen through “Lunar Asparagus” from 1935. The white sculpture’s tall, wobbly forms may have been influenced by the time Ernst spent with Alberto Giacometti the prior summer, but have a wit that seems all Ernst.

Peripatetic and always searching both in his life and his art, Ernst mined the hidden corners of the human psyche to give voice to a world that had lost its reason. In doing so he found ways to challenge conventions, reinvent methods, and find anxiety and alarm, but also whimsy, humor and beauty in the power of imagination.

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