• U.S.

Art: MAX ERNST: The Compleat Experimenter

5 minute read
Robert Hughes

“Rebellious, heterogeneous, full of contradiction, [my work] is unacceptable to specialists of art, culture, morality. But it does have the ability to enchant my accomplices: poets, pataphysicians* and a few illiterates.” Thus Max Ernst (tongue poked its usual quarter-length into one rubicund cheek) summed up his own career at the age of 68. “Accomplices” was the key word, for it is hard to look at a Max Ernst without feeling a pact between his secret language and one’s own fantasies. The carnivorous or petrified landscapes, the enchanted pencil forests, the enigmatic rooms in which sinister things happen—these constitute a world on the other side of the mirror, access to which depends on an involuntary conspiracy with the artist.

Twenty years ago, Ernst was still a minority taste (a large minority, it is true). But when he died last week in Paris, one day short of his 85th birthday, a chapter in the history of modern culture closed. Ernst was our century’s incarnation of Hermes, the agile trickster, and we will not see his like again. He was, with the more phlegmatic Rene Magritte, the best of all the artists connected with surrealism—the master of the “alternative” tradition of mystery, unreason and demonic wit.

Childhood endowed Ernst with a rich compost of obsessions. His father was a fiercely authoritarian Roman Catholic, an amateur painter who taught in a school for deaf-mutes in the Rhineland town of Brühl. Little Max briefly persuaded this eccentric sire that he was the child Jesus. Memories of this sort underlie Ernst’s most notorious thrust of anticlerical wit, a spanking Madonna entitled The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses (1926). When his baby sister was born and his favorite bird, a pink cockatoo, died on the same day in 1906, a whole sequence of bird fantasies was set in train. Generally they were alarming: Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924) is filled with a De Chirico-like sense of loss and displacement, frozen in its tiny frame with all the bright inescapability of a dream.

Ernst as a nervous, impressionable boy, in constant friction with authority, was in every way the father of the surrealist man: he even read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. It was World War I that clinched Ernst’s attitudes to authority. He spent the war years in the German army, in both France and Poland. When he came out of the army he found comradeship with a generation of gifted, irascible young .intellectuals and artists whose loathing of that “whole immense Schweinerei of the imbecilic war” crossed the frontiers of Europe: Jean Arp and Tristan Tzara in Zurich, George Grosz, John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann in Berlin, Kurt Schwitters in Hannover, André Breton and his growing circle in Paris.

For these men who formed the nucleus of the short-lived Dada movement, the existing surface of art — its forms and language — was a repressive crust. Freedom lay in the unprecedented. For Ernst it included the discovery in 1919 of an old catalogue, full of engravings of all sorts of objects. That catalogue, cut up by its discoverer to make new configurations of its images, was a mother lode of modern art, and the collages Ernst extracted from it, like The Horse, He’s Sick (1920), have never been equaled in their ironic intensity, formal rigor and erotic strangeness.

Ernst had a distinct prophetic faculty: immersed in the 20th century and lacking any nostalgia, he could feel what was coming. The ruins of The Petrified City (1933) are both an aftertaste of the first World War and a foretaste of the second, and The Angel of Earth (1937), a monster prancing in devouring rage across a flat landscape, had more than a fortuitous connection with the advance of fascism. In Europe After the Rain (1940-42), Ernst produced a vision of spongy, iridescent ruins that deserves a place with Picasso’s Guernica as one of the supreme documents of historical evil.

His predictive powers also had to do with art style itself. Having fled from Occupied France to the U.S. (where he married Peggy Guggenheim, his third wife, in 1941), he made some small paintings by swinging a punctured can of paint on a string above a canvas laid flat on the floor; the resulting pattern of drips clearly anticipates Jackson Pollock. There was no chance technique — staining, rubbing, splashing, accidental manipulation, transfer blots — that Ernst did not pioneer; and if the work of his last 30 years (except for the sculpture, which is still much underrated) rarely seemed as impressive as his early collages or his dreamlike images of the ’20s and ’30s, it still bore testimony to one of the most durable and fertile talents of our entire culture, a great enemy of the trivial and the bogus and the solemn.

* “Pataphysics,” wrote its founder, Poet Alfred Jarry, in 1898, is “the science of the realm beyond metaphysics.” It will study the laws that govern exceptions and “explain the universe supplementary to this one.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com