Looking, seeing, understanding anew

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The dark of the moon is an auspicious time to see this painting - in the mind's eye at least. When there is the least light one cannot be distracted by habitual images: the common shape and name with which we label things. Max Ernst, with his usual double-edged wit, challenges the viewer to see the shifting forms below our static images and to sense the interplay of energies we understand only crudely as light, water, sound and the windless tracks of space.

The Sea? An ironic title, at first glance, considering the dry and pitted lunar surface of this rough sphere. The lines skidding across the lunar face are another puzzle: blues, reds, black, bits of arange and dark magenta are refrated as through a prism, flickering and colliding with each other. Yet it makes a great deal of sense; Ernst is at work, disrupting our comfortable ways of seeing.

A colleague of the artist. Patrick Waldberg, has said of Ernst, "when he was six years old, to anybody who asked him to name his favorite occupation, he unhesitatingly replied: 'looking.' His practised look reveals and strips all it sees, and at the same time confronts and combats it. In it one can sometimes see an attempt at restraint, but this is at once tempered by the desire to know. The coldness often imputed to him is not so much hardness as reserve, a drawing back in order to see better, an incessantly alert vigilance, and also a kind of prudence or even a strategem."

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He has done just that with this painting; time and distance are among the arbitrary entities which have been stripped away, as well as the accepted notions of what form a wave should take.

Consider a stretch of ocean under a bright sun off some stony beach: winter or summer, the light off the waves shatters in a thousand different directions and blinds us for a moment. It glances through the waves and is tossed back into space, and it also travels in straight lines. A single wave becomes light and sound; it dazzles, takes on different shapes and hues, and disappears. We begin to see it differently when we look long enough.

Ernst's eyes, says Waldberg, "can be filled with urgent questioning, with anger, with sweetness or malice . . . they have a gleam that comes from far away , a gleam that mingles the tones of a sulphur flame, the milky streaking of an agate, the flash of an electric arc seen through a sheet of water." And here in this painting is a flame: reflected energy and light seen through water; here is water seen through time and space. Here is time seen through an electric arc of vision which obliterates it, and yet sees the oceans of earth heaving with the phases of the moon in its deep cycles. "The joys one feels at every successful metamorphosis," Ernst has said, "is not the satisfaction of a wretched craving for distraction, but a response to the intellect's age-old need to free itself from the tedious, illusory paradise of congealed memories and seek a new, an incomparably vaster realm of experience . . ."

Ernst always sought this "vaster realm of experience in which the frontiers between the inner world, as it is conventionally termed, and the outer world (according to the classical philosophical conception) will tend to become more and more blurred and, quite possibly, disappear completely one day . . ." Mystics are said to achieve this, and aged people, poets, lovers and young children in moments where time and space are irrelevant to the movement of thought and spirit. Ernst, himself a poet as well as visual artist, has created something of a new language with which to explore more of those "irrational paths of knowledge - dreaming, imagination, love."

Yet like an arc of light through water, he does not stay to be examined, petrified into one of his own images. Jacques Viot touched something of the mystery of this artist when he said, "Max Ernst has gone off alone into one of those forests . . . He has stood aside before his discoveries. He has withdrawn into his discoveries." The moment of the new moon has passed in its cycle, and is a crescent, coming full again. In the next phase, and the next, who knows what can be seen?

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