Max Ernst: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

By Dunham, Carroll | Artforum International, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Max Ernst: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Dunham, Carroll, Artforum International


Locating and mapping the human unconscious was a primary plotline within the braided narratives of modernism, and it fell to the Surrealist painters to represent the inchoate structures and unverbalized agendas of this newly explored dark continent. The texture of the twentieth century is fading in our memory, as the talking cure listens to Prozac and the end of history scrambles not to become the history of the end--but the fortuitously timed Max Ernst retrospective reminded us that conditions of epic urgency surround us and that art is allowed to claim them as its contextual domain.

If being born German at the turn of the past century meant conscription into the wrong side of a multigenerational bad trip, it also meant sharing in the German-speaking world's response to modernity, which would eventually connect Dada, V-2 rockets, and the discovery of LSD. Ernst's peripatetic existence put him at the illusive center of the cutting edge several times on two continents, and made him a crucial conduit for radical memes within the mid-century transatlantic scene. A thread runs from him through Wols, Konrad Klaphek, Sigmar Polke, and Albert Oehlen to inscribe a zone of German painting characterized by physical inventiveness in the service of a harsh fusion of mysticism and sarcasm.

It's art-historical boilerplate to slot Ernst as a "painter of dreams," but we all know how boring other people's dreams are (nightmares a bit less so). Whether one sees his pictures as communiques from the id, visionary shamanistic artifacts, or a form of whistling past the graveyard depends on one's chosen model of the psyche, but viewed through any filter, he and his cohorts revealed a realm with which the "advanced" West has never been comfortable and which until the twentieth century had only sporadically made its way up to the surface of our collective picture plane. (It is forever shocking that Bosch could see what he saw when he saw it.)

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Ernst's work really kicked in after his experiences in the German army during World War I, when he began to internalize the tactics of Dada and to formulate his own idiosyncratic response to de Chirico. Surrealist painting has tended to be parsed along a spectrum running from the "abstract" (Masson) to the "representational" (Dali), but Ernst's work reveals the bankruptcy of these distinctions in the face of an unprecedented subject matter. A more crucial theoretical issue is the new reciprocity between materials and procedures (what we now call "process") and its implications for the problem of rendering as the go-to mode of depiction in Western painting. Ernst had neither the patience nor the talent for the old-masterish bravura of Dali or Tanguy, and he must have understood the danger of the theatrical, postcards-from-the-edge quality that appeared later in the work of lesser Surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Kurt Seligmann. Nevertheless, a painting like Celebes, from 1921, which is exemplary of Ernst's immediate postwar period, while too weird and formally powerful to be considered derivative, still exists comfortably within the sign-painterly style that cuts an arc from de Chirico through Magritte to Kahlo and, later, Picabia, in all of whose hands this flat-footed idiom was put to telling use.

Through his exploration of collage and, a few years later, the discovery of rubbing and related techniques in his paintings and drawings, Ernst showed himself the exit from this dilemma of how to embody his startlingly new subjects. The physical manipulation of magazine photographs and engravings facilitated the construction of beings and spaces totally unavailable to conventional drawing. Collages like The Chinese Nightingale, 1920, or Sambesiland, 1921, for example, have the shocking presence of psychic objects that--even if imagined--one never expected to see. Meanwhile, Ernst's literal and figurative digging around in his paintings triggered chains of association of unbelievable richness, which would not have been available to him through any other working methods. …

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