- Max Ernst: Life and WorkOur PickBy Werner Spies
- Max Ernst: Dream and RevolutionBy Werner Spies, Iris Muller-Westermann
- Max Ernst and Alchemy : A Magician in Search of MythBy Franklin Rosemont, M. E. Warlick
Progression of Art
Here Everything is Still Floating
This composition made from unrelated cutout photographs of fish, anatomical drawings, insects (turned over to suggest a sailing ship), and puffs of clouds and smoke cunningly arranged demonstrates Ernst's unique collage aesthetic. Through the medium, Ernst created a new world where randomness and illogic expressed the insanity of WWI and threw bourgeois sensibilities into question. The artist appropriated these images from scientific manuals, anthropological journals, and common merchandising catalogs dating from the turn-of-the-century. Ernst has managed to create a very delicate and detailed work, small in format, which seduces the viewer into close looking, and which propels the viewer to gauge the work's intentions. The title, Here Everything is Still Floating, does not appear to connect with the image in any meaningful way, except that the objects appear floating in the air. Despite the futile search for meaning, this whimsical work ultimately proves enjoyable and satisfying. The artist was to later recall that, "Collage was seen as a kind of crime, meaning one did violence to nature."
Cut-and-pasted printed paper and pencil on printed paper on cardstock - Museum of Modern Art, New York
At center, a large round shape dominates the composition that Ernst based upon a photograph of a Sudanese bin for storing corn which the artist has refigured as an elephant-like mechanical being from the subconscious. The painting's title (sometimes known as The Elephant Celebes) comes from a childish and naughty German rhyme that starts off, "The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease," a bawdy reference to those that know the original rhyme.
Ernst's painting demonstrates his indebtedness to Freudian dream theory with its odd juxtapositions of disparate objects. Despite this disparity - a headless/nude woman, the bits of machinery - the painting holds together as a finished composition. Ernst's work elicits discomfort in the not knowing of his intentions and also, in early-20th century audiences, disgust because of its irrelevant depiction of the human form (the headless nude) which is revered within art making (since people are made in God's image). Through this work, Ernst questions which is the "real" world - that of night-time and dreams - or that of the waking state.
Oil on canvas - Tate Gallery, London
This is a relatively small canvas in comparison to Ernst's other works although it radiates a commanding presence beyond its scale. At center, dominating the composition is a tower-like form with human arms extended and a head constructed as an architectural form. The tower is balanced precariously as if a spinning top which has been halted. The stability of architecture versus the instability of the tower's base, and its movement, places the object in internal conflict. Ernst has placed the body/building within a bare desert, with just an abandoned scythe in the background, which would prove futile in such a setting. The title, "Ubu Imperator," translates as the Commander, yet the central figure lacks the stability and authority a leader usually commands in both art and life.
Oil on canvas - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale
A red wooden fence affixed to the painting's surface opens in a welcoming manner and reveals what at first seems to be an idyllic setting. Against a pleasing background of a blue sky, Ernst has diligently rendered a scene of confusion and terror. At top, a small figure strikes down on a buzzer as if to signal a warning. Our eye quickly catches sight of a crazed female figure at left running in distress - painted in grisaille -- wielding a knife as if fighting off the nightingale. A second female, similarly painted in just grey and white tones, collapses on the ground as if fainted. Ernst later provided two autobiographical references for the nightingale: first, was the death of his sister in 1897. The second was a boyhood fevered hallucination in which the wood grain of a panel near his bed took on "successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird's head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top and so on." Ernst would often depict birds in his works, which he used as an autobiographical symbol. Although Ernst painted from his own life and rendered personal symbols, he successful conveys the terror of dreams that is universal.
Oil on wood with painted wood elements and frame - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter
Here, portrayed as an earthy, frustrated woman, the Virgin Mary sharply paddles her young son - the unruly baby Jesus - on his bottom which displays red marks already left by her punishing hand. Watching through the background window and serving as witnesses are Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the painter himself; all three seem untroubled by the scene. Ernst successfully upends both his own Catholic faith with its devotion to Christ's mother Mary, while simultaneously debasing much of Western art history with its proliferation of loving scenes between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ child, and also, undercutting the secular, bourgeois sanctity of motherhood. Ernst's painting is simultaneously blasphemous and sharply humorous. As expected, not everyone saw humor in the theme and the work created considerable controversy as an attack on Christianity and contemporary values.
Oil on canvas - Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Forest and Dove
In this work, Ernst depicts a nocturnal scene of a forest of bizarre, abstract, and threatening trees. The artist frequently rendered thick forests to recall his own feelings and memories of "enchantment and terror" about the woods near his childhood home in Germany. Within this thick grove is a child-like drawing of a bird to represent Ernst, possibly in his post-war traumatic state. Forest and Dove exemplifies Ernst's pioneering 'grattage' technique where he scraped paint across the canvas to reveal imprints of objects, a technique he developed with the Spanish surrealist Joan Miro. Grattage produced a rough texture that added another dimension to the canvas - the density of a forest was amplified. It would be a mistake to overlook Ernst's German origins with its heritage of Romanticism, and how this shaped his individual psyche. The German concept of Ahnung, or the sense of foreboding, impending catastrophe pulsates in his apocalyptic paintings. Ernst was well-versed in Wagnerian myths of the German forests as being mysterious and spellbinding; the Surrealists later adopted forests and dark enclaves as a metaphor for the human imagination.
Oil on canvas - Tate Modern, London
The Fireside Angel
This fantastical creature, with arms and legs extended, appears to be leaping with a garish, yet joyous, expression on its face. The figures and its appendages are oddly colored and malformed. Further, its leg seems to be spawning another being, as if a cancerous growth spreading. Fireside Angel is one of the rare works by Ernst that was inspired directly by world political events. The artist was motivated to paint the work after Franco's fascists defeated the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Ernst strove to create a painting suggestive of the ensuing chaos he feared was spreading across Europe, and emanating from his native Germany. Revisiting the benign and misleading title, it was Ernst's play to attract viewers with pleasing words, and then shock them into questioning their own beliefs by labeling monsters as angels.
Oil on canvas
Europe After the Rain II
In this other-worldly canvas, Ernst has painted an evocation of a vast apocalypse. In the midst of the ruined land, a helmeted, bird-headed figure - perhaps a soldier - threatens a female figure with his spear or ruined battle standard. It has been suggested that the figures could be large garden statuary, or perhaps semi-mythical survivors of a futuristic war. As mentioned previously, Ernst's use of the bird-human figure might be self-referential.
Seen within the context of 20th century European history, Europe after the Rain II bears testimony to the insurmountable reign of warfare that devastated Europe at the time. This work is unparalleled in Ernst's artistic interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and the beginnings of World War II. To create the ruinous forms, the grattage technique perfectly evokes the great destruction that Europe had suffered. The span of dates attributed to the work suggests that Ernst began this piece in France and completed it in the United States while the war continued on and the fate of Europe remained unknown.
Oil on canvas - Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut
The King Playing with the Queen
Among the mediums in which Ernst excelled was sculpture, such as in this prominent bronze. Similar to fellow Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Ernst fancied chess playing as an art form unto itself. Ernst would often title his works with irrational titles, or tongue-in-cheek puns playing with words. Here, the enlarged king (most likely Ernst himself) plays with his diminutive queen (possibly his wife Dorothea Tanning) who herself is somewhat larger than the other pieces. The words "playing with" in the title might refer to sexual playing and games between the newlyweds, as well as the establishing of domestic order of married life.World War II was at its height in 1944 when Ernst along with Tanning spent the summer on Long Island as the guest of gallery owner Julien Levy; there, the couple often played chess. Ernst began a thorough examination into the intricacies of this game against the backdrop of global warfare. Earlier, in 1929, Ernst first modeled chess pieces that he turned into sculptures; he designed and executed several complete chessboards as well. Ernst's turn to chess as an artistic subject in the mid-1940s went beyond the technical merits of the game, instead probing what he thought were the game's literary and magical associations.
Bronze - Museum of Modern Art, New York