Max Ernst: Pioneer of Surrealist Art

An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art spans 15 years of the painter's career

AN invitation to the opening of Max Ernst's first Paris exhibition in 1921 promised "surprises." More than 70 years later, the current show, "Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism," at New York's Museum of Modern Art delivers on that promise.

What surprises in this survey of the pioneer painter's early output is how he never repeated himself, even though he consistently used the known to evoke the unknown.

"Beyond painting" is how Ernst (1891-1976) characterized his work. In his nontraditional paintings, collages, and photo-montages, he had no wish to reproduce physical appearances. The only art worth creating, he said, embodies "invention, discovery, revelation."

The show consists of 180 works created between 1912 and 1927 by the German painter known for bizarre imagery.

The survey documents his early Expressionist paintings, such as delightful oils of spiky plant and animal hybrids in bright jelly-bean colors.

Other apprentice canvases portray disquieting family scenes in muddy, dark hues, suggesting that Ernst's conversion to Dadaism was a logical career move.

After being nearly court-martialed for insubordination during military service in World War I, Ernst was ripe for joining the anarchistic Dada movement that arose in New York and Zurich around 1916. Outraged at the savagery of war, Ernst and fellow artists like Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp turned against all forms of reason, authority, and convention.

The public spectacles they staged were intended to shock and provoke. At the aforementioned opening of Ernst's Paris show, his Dada colleagues engaged in madcap behavior that defines the word "zany."

One burned match after match, another roamed the gallery meowing, two used gallery-goers as props in a game of hide-and-seek, while another offered beverages said to contain both poison and laxatives.

Ernst's work from this playful Dada period manifests similar elements of the irrational and unexpected. The show includes many collages where Ernst reenvisions the familiar in order to make us see afresh.

In "The Hat Makes the Man," he glued photographic reproductions of hats into stacks. He then connected the haberdashery by lines and painted tubular shapes to compose humanoid forms.

The title of one painting from this period, "Perturbation, My Sister," illuminates the artist's objective throughout his career. Ernst sought to perturb - to jolt the viewer out of complacency by juxtaposing disparate images in ambiguous contexts.

In most cases, his titles deepen instead of clarify the mystery of his disturbing imagery. Labels like "The Little Tear Gland That Says Tic-Tac" and "The Preparation of Bone Glue" increase the sense of disorientation for the viewer.

Composed entirely of fractious leaders and devoid of docile followers, the Dada movement self-destructed in 1924. Ernst's work already prefigured the next major art movement: Surrealism.

Surrealism placed more emphasis on improvisation than did Dada art. Its practitioners, including Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, hoped to smash "the bars of reason's cage," as the poet Rene Crevel put it.

They wished to create a spontaneous art, without premeditation, that would draw solely on the unconscious. This tapping of psychic depths would establish a "super-reality" superior to the mundane world of logic.

Again Ernst was in the vanguard. He had always relied heavily on dream imagery, as in his "Ubu Imperator," based on a nightmare of his imperious father with a whip spinning like a top.

Ernst's "Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale" is the ultimate Surrealist work. It seems to have originated in a hallucination the artist experienced when he was ill as a young child. The enigmatic sense of menace the work projects achieves Ernst's stated goal of recording "what is seen on the frontier between the inner and outer world."

In the works of Ernst's first 15 years as a professional artist, his mature themes and techniques appear.

The persistent imagery of birds, strangely animated objects and landscapes, inexplicable creatures, and startling linkages are evident.

He also developed a technical innovation he called "frottage," or rubbing. To generate spontaneous imagery, in 1925 Ernst began placing paper - and later canvas - over a rough-textured surface like floorboards, wicker, even dried bread or cherry stems. He then rubbed with graphite or paint to capture the pattern, which he would later embellish.

The frottage works, although derived directly from reality, have a delicate, unearthly look like lunar landscapes. In fact, all Ernst's landscapes are interior - renderings of the terrain of his imagination.

After the period covered in this show, Ernst's vision darkened. As the world lurched into fascism in the 1930s and world war in the '40s, his imagery became more grotesque.

During the remainder of a distinguished and prolific career, he never recaptured the humor, fueled by a well-developed sense of absurdity, that permeated the work and world of his youth.

* "Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism" remains at the Museum of Modern Art until May 2, then travels to The Menil Collection in Houston (May 27-Aug. 29) and The Art Institute of Chicago (Sept.15-Nov. 30).

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