Academic journal article The Space Between

Max Ernst's Post-World War I Studies in Hysteria

Academic journal article The Space Between

Max Ernst's Post-World War I Studies in Hysteria

Article excerpt

In 1920 and 1921, the Cologne Dadaist Max Ernst produced a series of collages remarkable for their technical innovation and visual strangeness. Ernst's unconventional artistic practices situate the collages firmly within the iconoclastic aims of the Dada movement, yet his fantastic imagery suggests an early exploration into the realm of the unconscious, prompting many scholars to view these works as proto-Surrealist.11 view his collages, completed before he left for Paris in 1922, not only as precursors to Surrealism, but as central to the movement's research into psychoanalytic theory and the development of its visual practice.2 Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic works, particularly his writings on hysteria, greatly inform Ernst's artistic practice and subject matter during this period, forming a basis for his later Surrealist experiments.31 argue that, motivated by the pervasiveness of war hysteria or shell shock as a diagnosis during and after World War I, and his own experiences of trench warfare, Ernst adopts the perspective of a male hysteric in his images of war torn landscapes and the dismembered or hysterical bodies of both men and women. I argue further that he presents the viewer with a world filtered through neuroses as a subversive challenge to the patriarchal institutions of authority responsible for the war, rather than as a symptom of victimization.

In the years prior to World War I, Ernst studied psychiatry at the University of Bonn and became familiar with the writings of Freud. He served as an artilleryman during the war and his experiences as a soldier formed a dramatic context for his explorations and understanding of psychoanalytic theory. In the immediate aftermath of war, Ernst found that Freud's oedipal complex functioned as relevant vehicle for Dada rebellion. As Ernst explored Freud's writings on hysteria and dreams, he transformed Freud's concept of the unconscious into a structural model for the creation of imagery.4

On the front page of the journal Dada au grand air (Der Sängerkrieg in Tirol), produced in the summer of 1921 by the members of Zurich and Cologne Dada, Ernst's collage, The Pi'eparation of Bone Glue, can be viewed as an illustration of a Freudian hysteric (Figure 1). The original source of the collage illustrates a diathermy process in which an electrical current treats joint ailments (Camfield 102; Spies Collages 89). Ernst added three collage elements to the original illustration, two small floating balls and the tool that penetrates the image from the left. In the context of female hysteria, the phallic tool symbolizes the penis the patient desires and fears. By the time Freud and Josef Breuer's Studies on Hysteria was published in 1895, Freud no longer believed in the necessity of actual sexual trauma to induce hysteria, theorizing that a repressed fantasy would be psychically powerful enough. While the patient illustrated in the original image might not be a hysteric per se, electrical currents were commonly used in the late nineteenth century in the treatment of hysteria and, prior to development of his "talking cure," even Freud recommended their use (Breuer and Freud 138). In Ernst's collage, the violence of both cause and cure intensifies the victimization of the woman; the collage element reads both as a sign of the women's sexual fantasy/memory and as the invasive technology of the medical establishment.

Ernst's collage, titled in both German and French, DieLeiinbereitung ans Knochen, La préparation de la colle d'os, acts as a signpost for the future direction of the Surrealist movement as well as for Ernst's subsequent work.5 His use of late-nineteenth-century line engravings taken from popular journals recall the source material Freud finds in dreams-day residue, images from one's childhood-and the juxtaposition of unrelated elements into a new seamless whole parallels the transformation of source material into dream imagery. Ernst's formal methods and iconography suggest that prior to the founding of Surrealism, he sought an artistic analogy to the manifestations of the unconscious as described by Freud. …

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