NEW YORK.- The much-anticipated exhibition Max Ernst: A Retrospective, the first major U.S. survey of the artists work in 30 years, is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ernst (1891-1976) was a founding member of the Dada and Surrealist movements in Europe and was one of the most ingenious artists of the 20th century. The exhibition will remain on view through July 10, 2005.
Ernsts paintings and collages, steeped in Freudian metaphor, private mythology, and childhood memories, are regarded as icons of Surrealist art. With the exception of Picasso, few artists have played such a decisive role in the invention of modern techniques and styles. Through some 175 works including his most important paintings, celebrated collages, frottages, drawings, sculptures, and illustrated books, lent from private and public collections in Europe and the United States the exhibition will explore Ernsts stylistic, technical, and thematic achievements.
Max Ernst: A Retrospective will also trace the artists peripatetic career, which began in Germany before World War I, shifted to France between the wars, moved to the United States during World War II, and concluded in France. The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, its only venue.
Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, stated: While the importance of Max Ernst in the history of Dada and Surrealism has been recognized worldwide, the spectrum of Ernsts work along with its inventiveness has been less well-known in the United States in recent years. The Metropolitans upcoming exhibition should redress this. As the first major survey of the artists career in this country in three decades, Max Ernst: A Retrospective mirrors the extraordinary variety of Ernsts oeuvre and will include some of his most celebrated works from the different periods of his life.
Exhibition Overview - Ernsts famous proto-Surrealist paintings from the period of evolution from Dada into Surrealism are among the highlights featured in the exhibition. Based on the method of collage, they are built up of separate elements that create strange images, combining threat, comedy, and dream. Most famous among them are the iconic paintings created between 1921 and 1923, including Celebes (1921, Tate Modern, London), in which a hulking, horned elephantine creature, part machine and part beast, stands on a vast plain against a cloudy sky, gazing at a headless female nude. In Ubu Imperator (1923, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National dArt Moderne, Paris), an anthropomorphic top dances in a vast empty landscape. Such works might be said to capture early on the Surrealist notion of estrangement.
Other works from this period deal with themes of blindness and entrapment. In Saint Cecilia (1923, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), the patron saint of music and the blind is encased in a structure that covers her eyes and constricts her entire body, save her arms, which are outstretched to play an invisible keyboard. In The Wavering Woman (1923, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf), a large creature that could be either human or an automaton is engulfed by an electrical charge. In Oedipus Rex (1922, Private collection), male fingers, pierced by a mechanical device, emerge through an open square in an enclosed brick structure and balance above the heads of two trapped bird-like creatures.
Particularly significant are the artists collage novels, narratives made up of disparate images culled from 19th-century engravings and combined in unsettling compositions. Among the novels included in the exhibition are La Femme 100 têtes (1929, The Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library), Rêve dune petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (1930, Collection Timothy Baum, New York), and Une semaine de bonté; (1934, The Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library).
The artists subsequent works incorporate the techniques of frottage (making a rubbing from a textured surface), grattage (frottage applied to painting), and decalcomania (manipulation of a still wet painting by pressing a second surface against it and then pulling it away). In the paintings, Ernst explores the themes of the forest and the ruined city, which poignantly foreshadow the political storm clouds gathering over Europe. For example, in The Fireside Angel (1937, Private collection), Ernst reacts directly to the menacing rise of Fascism.
Foreboding and memory characterize many of the remarkable paintings created by the artist during his time in the United States, from 1941 to 1953. The large-scale Vox Angelica (1943, Private collection) can be interpreted today as a manifesto on European art in exile, with its evocation of the life that had to be left behind when artists fled the advance of the war.
About the Artist
Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, in Brühl, a small German town located near the Rhine River between Bonn and Cologne. His father, Philipp Ernst, a devout Catholic and an academic painter, was a teacher at a school for the deaf. Max Ernst, an avid reader, studied philosophy, history of art, literature, and psychology at the University of Bonn from 1909 to 1914. Highly intelligent and imaginative, he initially began painting in a naïve Expressionist style that mingled aspects of Cubism with Futurism.
From 1914 to 1917, during World War I, Ernst served in the German army on both the Western and Eastern fronts. He continued painting in his earlier style until the summer of 1919, when he saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico reproduced in the magazine Valori Plastici. This encounter with the melancholy, magical, and empty cityscapes of the Italian artist proved decisive for Ernsts later artistic development, as he became one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the Dada movement in Cologne. Before long, his remarkable Dada collages attracted the attention of the French poets and writers André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard in Paris, who saw in these works analogies to their own poetic experiments.
In 1921, Breton organized an exhibition of Ernsts Dada collages in Paris, and in 1922, Ernst moved to the French capital, never to work again in his native country. Three years later, in 1924, the 33-year-old artist became one of the founding members of the Surrealist group. The proto-Surrealist paintings that he created between 1921 and 1923, first in Cologne and later in Paris, are now regarded as signature works of the movement. Composed of illusionistic but irrational scenes, they evoke dreams and hallucinations but defy interpretation. These powerful images later influenced the early works of Tanguy, Masson, Magritte, and Dalí among others.
The artists collages are even more representative of the Surrealist movement. In them, Ernst combined cutout details from a variety of sources, including 19th-century engravings from popular novels and mail-order catalogues, and botanical and scientific prints from teaching-aid catalogues. These transformed images are fantastic, magical, sometimes disquieting, and always surprising.
In 1941, escaping the Nazi threat in Europe, Max Ernst arrived in the United States. First in New York, and later in Sedona, Arizona, he created remarkable paintings and sculptures. In 1953, Ernst returned permanently to Europe, and died in Paris in 1976, one night before his 85th birthday. A museum devoted to the artists life and work, the Max Ernst Museum, is scheduled to open in his hometown of Brühl, Germany, on Septembember 3, 2005.