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June 1999

Max Ernst: Expressionist, Dadaist, Surrealist--a man of many styles

The exhibition of Max Ernst at the Haus der Kunst

Painter, printmaker, sculptor, liar, golddigger, flatterer, swindler, scoundrel and boxer – these are not descriptives one expects to encounter on an exhibition poster, especially one designed by the artist himself. But Max Ernst was a master of the unexpected. A pioneer of Dada and Surrealism, he is the subject of a retrospective that opens at the Haus der Kunst this month. The exhibition includes paintings, collages, and sculptures from all phases of Ernst’s prodigious 70-year career. Born in 1891, Maximilian Ernst was raised in Brühl, a small town near Cologne. His strict Catholic upbringing and his tempestuous relationship with his father, a teacher of the deaf and an amateur painter, would have a lasting influence on the artist’s choice of themes and modes of expression. Ernst would definitively reject his parents’ bourgeois mentality, which for him was embodied in his father’s stuffy academic paintings. The alternate reality his father’s pupils inhabited, whose deafness required them to operate within a language system fundamentally different in its structures and forms of expression, pointed the way for young Max. His parents pressured him into studying at the University of Bonn, where he pursued courses in philology, philosophy, psychiatry and art history. In 1911, Ernst met the Expressionist painter August Macke and, through him, entered the world of the avant-garde. Although he had dabbled with painting before, Ernst now began to pursue it seriously. He had no formal training, but this is not to say he was without teachers. These he found in the works of Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Delaunay, the Italian Futurists and the German Expressionists. The earliest paintings favor the latter in style – full of acid colors and heavy outlines. His works had already begun to foreshadow later painting styles, in that they exhibited dark psychological overtones. This set them apart from those of his Expressionist colleagues. Ernst served in the army during World War II. Though he escaped both the mental and physical maiming that claimed many of the Expressionists, the experience was devastating nonetheless. The war killed Expressionism. Artists such as Otto Dix began to paint works of searing social criticism in a sharply realistic style. Another response, one which Ernst adopted after meeting Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara, leaders of the burgeoning Dada movement in Zurich, was to take aggressive aim at the very foundations of the society that had spawned the war. The Dada movement’s goal was to shock bourgeois society into questioning its assumptions about art and move on to deeper soul-searching. The movement offered no answers. Through cabaret performances, soireés and exhibitions, they usually succeeded in thoroughly outraging the public. Blasting away the notion of the artist as a divinely inspired genius and technical virtuoso, Dadaists created their works according to the tenets of chance and absurdism. Characteristic was a 1916 performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, during which the poets Tristan Tzara, Richard Hulsenbeck and Marcel Janco simultaneously read, in three different languages, the poem “The Admiral is Looking for a Room to Rent.” They had created the poem by cutting words out of newspapers at random and arbitrarily stringing them together. Hans Arp created some of the first visual equivalents in his “automatic drawings,” products of letting his pen wander aimlessly across a piece of paper. Arp also created collages of happenstance by tearing up scraps of colored paper and gluing them down where they fell. Typical of the artist’s Dada work is Das Schlafzimmer des Meisters – la chambre à coucher de max ernst (The master’s bedroom), c.1920. Here, following Arp, he used chance to circumvent traditional notions of art. He lifted a page from an old school primer, randomly colored in some figures and painted out the rest. The positioning of the figures then seem to have suggested spatial relationships, so he enclosed them in a perspectival box. Now he had a room that, because of the bed in the foreground, resembled a bedroom. To complete the work, he framed it with words in German and French. They translate to: “the master’s bedroom – it’s worth it to spend a night here.” By 1921, the cologne Dada group had disbanded. Ernst headed for Paris. There he befriended the poets André Breton and Paul Elouard, who were growing dissatisfied with Dada’s nihilism. They were mining the works of Freud, particularly his writings on dreams and dream analysis, searching for a way to proceed. Taking a cue from Dadaism, Breton and Elouard had already been experimenting with automatism in their writing. But their aim differed from that of the Dadaists; simply questioning bourgeois morality and values was not enough. By 1924, Breton had codified the pair’s goals and outlined their methods in the Surrealist Manifesto. Society must change, was the leitmotif. And the way to affect this change was to transform culture and values through a Surrealist literature and art based on the principles of automatism. In automatism, they saw a way to tap the untainted realm of the unconscious. Like dreams, automatic art and literature had a logic and reality of their own, and as products of the unconscious, offered a purer version of reality. Conventional logic had led to disaster. Perhaps concepts of the Surrealist movement would yield something better. From the movement’s inception, some literary Surrealists were skeptical of painting. Canvasses such as Ernst’s Oedipus Rex (1922) necessarily depart from the principles of automatism, as their creation required much planning and deliberation. A popular Surrealist (and Freudian) theme, sexuality, is indicated by the title. The Surrealist poet Max Morise wrote that works such as this painting, because of the thought that necessarily underlay their creation, were “Surrealist, their expression is not.” Although Morise advocated the use of collage, Ernst’s Surrealist examples of this genre, such as Défais ton sac, mon brave (Save your Sack, My Brave One), from the 1929 collage “novel,” La femme 100 têtes (Woman with 100 Heads, or following the pun in French, Woman without a Head), seem no less contrived than his paintings. The collage neither conforms to Surrealist standards of automatism nor records the artist’s subconscious thoughts. What the work, composed of figures and settings cut from 19th-century engravings does, through its unexpected juxtapositions, is reveal the darkness lurking beneath the surface of orderly bourgeois life – sexuality, deviance, violence and fear. This is what makes it Surrealist. Ernst continued to experiment with automatism throughout his career, inventing new techniques that would allow for greater spontaneity in his work. He developed frottage, a process which involved making graphite rubbings of diverse textures, cutting them into shapes and combining those into collages. He also invented grottage, whereby he built up layers of paint on the canvas, scraping and working the surface with various tools to create shapes and textures, and to reveal colors. Examples of both techniques are included in the exhibition. In the late thirties and early forties, Ernst began employing declomania, a technique with which other Surrealist painters had been experimenting, to make paintings such as L’oeil du silence (The Eye of Silence), 1941. He used sponges to layer paint and create forms, which he then painted over and around to create haunting fantasy landscapes. The Max Ernst retrospective at the Haus der Kunst is a must-see for Surrealism fans. Those who enjoy intellectual substance in their art will be satisfied. And those just looking for escape can lose themselves for a couple of hours in Ernst’s strange worlds and exquisite brushwork. So spend the night in the master’s bedroom. It’s worth it Max ernst. Die Retrospektive. June 11 - September 12, 1999, at Haus der Kunst.

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