“Beyond Painting”, the title of a major exhibition of the work of Max Ernst at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, could be mistaken for a curator’s matter-of-fact description of a show that, alongside works in paint, features sculptures, collages, prints and illustrations. Except the phrase is not MoMA’s from 2017, but Ernst’s from 1936. Today, Max Ernst is best known as a painter, of otherworldly landscapes populated by fantastical figures. But his lifelong quest was to go “au-delà de la peinture”.
Fragmentation and displacement were constant features of Ernst’s life. Born in 1891 near Cologne in Germany, he began painting at university, inspired by encounters with the expressionism and abstraction of August Macke and Hans Arp. But when the first world war broke out, he was drafted into the German army. His grim experience serving on both eastern and western fronts prompted an artistic rebirth. How to make sense – or nonsense – of a fractured postwar world? His answer was collage. Cross-sections from a diagram of a fish might become neighbours with an image of a bomb; fashion catalogues could be tweaked to produce impossible and ludicrous cut-out costumes. But for all of the disorientation of world events these works channelled, their effect was far more often uncanny than sinister.
With collage as his foundation, Ernst became ever more ambitious. In Cologne he was a pioneer of Dadaism, a movement that rejected reason and aesthetics for irrationality and protest. His experimentation with materials became bolder, frequently combining found objects with paint. By placing paper over anything from leaves to wire mesh, from floorboards to crumbs, and rubbing the paper with a pencil to leave an impression – a technique known as frottage – he incorporated into his work not just the idea of these disparate items but their physical presence.
In 1922 he moved to Paris, then the capital of surrealism, where his furious output in a variety of media continued until another earthquake of world events, the German invasion. Interned by the Nazis, in 1941 he escaped to New York, another centre of émigré art, where he influenced the development of abstract expressionism, before moving to the red hills of Sedona, Arizona, a landscape that resembled the feverish visions of his work. In the 1950s he returned to Paris, where he died in 1976. Ernst lived at the apex of the avant-garde. Though he always painted, he never only painted. And the new and unearthly forms he found in other media enabled him to expand the possibilities of paint itself.
“Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group” (1931)
Examining a catalogue of anthropological, paleontological and mineral specimens in 1919, Max Ernst experienced, as he wrote in his autobiography thirty years later, “an illusive succession of contradictory images, double, triple, and multiple images, piling up on each other with the persistence and rapidity which are peculiar to love memories and visions of half-sleep.” He set out to inspire the same in others. Collage offered Ernst the possibility of art composed not of one single mind but from fragments of many. Here, he presents cut-out photographs of many of his friends and acquaintances from the Parisian surrealist group, among them Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí. Presiding over the crowd is Loplop, Ernst’s recurring avian alter-ego.
“The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses” (1921)
Ernst did not simply paste together bits of catalogues and photos. He began to incorporate them into paintings of his own, bending their meaning in strange and wonderful directions. In this case, Ernst took a teaching chart probably illustrating mitosis in cells, inverted the image, and then painted over it to create curious creatures that look simultaneously humanoid and mechanical.
“Napoleon in the Wilderness” (1941)
Later, Ernst would experiment with decalomania, a technique in which paint is applied with a sheet of paper or glass to create strange, almost topographical textures. For this painting, Ernst used decalomania for the base layer, later inverting the canvas and employing the same technique to accentuate its strangeness. The theme is personal. Ernst began it in one place of exile, in France, and finished in another, the United States. He wrote that the painting was “possibly an unconscious expression of my feelings at the time; for its central figure is not a triumphant Napoleon but a Napoleon in the wilderness on St Helena in exile and defeat.”
“The King Playing with the Queen” (1944, cast 1954)
Ernst adored sculpture, for “whenever I reach an impasse in my painting, which happens time and time again, sculpture always offers me a way out.” The title of this work, a surreal chess set made of bronze, quotes Dorothea Tanning, one of his wives (he had four): “A hypothetical king and queen playing a game involving kings and queens – there is no end to the interpretations that could be put upon such a situation.” The horned king, who rises from his playing board, surveys a set of pieces unlike anything that exists in real life. It is unclear whether he is the player or a piece. Is the larger queen his companion, or his adversary? Or is it a challenge to the viewer? Your move.
A page from “Oedipus”, volume IV, from “A Week of Kindness or the Seven Capital Elements” (1933-1934)
The exhibition features a splendid collection of Ernst’s printed work, including his illustrations for books by fellow surrealists Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard and Antonin Artaud. Not to be outdone, he created his own “collage novel”, “A Week of Kindness or the Seven Deadly Elements”, by cutting up and pasting images found everywhere from 19th-century novels to scientific journals. Pairing the days of the week with the elements, both environmental and physical (Tuesday - Fire; Wednesday - Blood), his images are both nostalgic and uncanny. Two women hide from a giant rooster; water threatens to engulf a Victorian gentleman contemplating his sleeping wife; a huge spine traps a young woman against an upturned divan. There was, in short, no end to the experiment.
Max Ernst: Beyond Painting MoMA until January 1st 2018