A founding member of the Surrealist group in Paris, German-born Max Ernst (1891–1976) was one of the most inventive artists of the twentieth century. His paintings, steeped in Freudian metaphors, private mythology, and childhood memories, are regarded today as icons of Surrealist art. Comprising some 180 works, this exhibition—the first retrospective to be shown in New York in thirty years—includes his most important paintings, his celebrated collages, drawings, sculptures, and illustrated books lent by private and public collections in Europe and the United States.
Ernst's 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 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 d'Art 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, birdlike creatures.
Ernst's great technical refinement is on display in A Night of Love (1927, private collection). The artist dipped strings of various strengths in water and then dropped them onto the canvas. From the remaining traces of these strings, he created the image of a couple wrapped in a starry night sky.
Particularly significant are the artist's collage novels, narratives made up of disparate images culled from nineteenth-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 d'une 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 artist's subsequent works incorporate the techniques—popularized by the Surrealists and used most memorably by Ernst—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 distant 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.