The Importance of Being (Max) Ernst

The Albertina delves into the magic and mystery of a pioneer of Surrealism and Dada

“Before he descends, a diver never knows what he will bring back up,” wrote Max Ernst, an experimental artist who delved deep into the life of the mind, and a fitting tag line to Ernst’s retrospective at Vienna’s Albertina through 5 May.

Walking through, visitors are swept along the path of Ernst’s life and, inseparably, his work, with framed pieces hung against solid backgrounds, calmly illuminated by subtle lighting. And then suddenly, the words serve as transition to an image-distorting funhouse of mirrors reflecting a wall of quotations opposite.

“Wherever man hopes to take the mysteries of nature by surprise,” Ernst is quoted, “he finds only his own image reflected in the mirror.”

This may explain why Surrealism can strike us so deeply and powerfully. Unhinged from naturalism, it reflects our fantasies and nightmares, bringing images to life, a reminder that our inner life can be released from our imaginations. We’re forced to confront reality and distortion, just as visitors see themselves in contorted reflections while passing through.

Max Ernst’s At the First Clear Word combines surrealism with life-like motifs | Photo: Albertina

Max Ernst’s At the First Clear Word combines surrealism with life-like motifs | Photo: Albertina


Finding Freud

Born in 1891 in Brühl, Germany, Max Ernst was raised with an authoritarian father who inspired his defiance. He then served in World War I and was interned as an enemy alien in France during World War II before escaping to the United States. In these turbulent times, the emotional prompts of strict childhood discipline fed the need to invent, to transcend reality through artistic innovation. The reverberating effects of life events, both personal and global, were to haunt his work to the end; even in his final years, embracing peace and tranquility after decades of turmoil.

Along the way, he developed new techniques, expanding his repertoire as his circumstances altered. The 180 paintings, collages, sculptures and illustrations, paired with insightful biographical guidance, present his life and art with contemporary history. Sculpture punctuates throughout, bringing demonically horned figures and fantastical faces to life, surreal and otherworldly.

Ernst found escape from his father through Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, the themes of which remained ever-present throughout Ernst’s work. From here, the exhibit progresses through phases and fixations, as the artist works with war experiences, adopts the theme of birds as a metaphor for man’s desire for freedom, and uses aspects of Christianity and motherhood as triggers for existential questions. In other pieces, he explores the forest, woodland and the language of myth and fairy tale – and the ominousness that’s at the heart of all such stories.


Surreal and restless

Paintings like At the First Clear Word, depicting a hand with stretching fingers arranged like a woman’s languidly crossed legs, show a blending of more realistic figures with developing Surrealism. Ernst experiments with classical themes elsewhere, such as Victory of Samothrace, done in oil on board with scratches. Often he employs curving lines – representing humans, nightmarish creatures, the joining of both and the morphing of figures: they become flowers, snakes and frogs, or sometimes merely twist and veer off into the distance; wind and water, always a fluidity.

Ernst’s restlessness is one of the few constants, even for flowers, which on one canvas, draw the eye back and forth, unable to find a resting place. Then there’s the uneasiness of the German concept of Ahnung – here, meant as a sense of foreboding, channeling impending catastrophe in Europe’s increasingly unstable political climate. Splatters of India ink spread helter-skelter around collage imagery of an upturned skeleton in The Year 1939.

Ernst worked experimentally but without reliance on accident, developing techniques that influenced many who followed. Jackson Pollack’s paint dripped onto a flat-laid canvas owes much to Ernst’s 1942 foray into “oscillation” – painting by swinging a paint-filled can riddled with holes over the canvas. Even this loose method was kept under control and enhanced. There is the technique of grattage (scraping) involving layers of paint scraped onto materials to capture their textures while losing identifying features; or frottage (rubbing), taking an impression of figures in materials like wood grain.

In 1955, Ernst moved to the Loire Valley with his fourth wife, American Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, ushering into his life a period of relative calm. The Garden of France shows a sensuous nude woman from the waist down, voluptuously curved like the Birth of Venus and reclining amidst painting of the Loire and Indre Rivers, embodying the region’s undulating calm that even Ernst found. This imagery, and its accompanying wash of peace closes the exhibit, leading visitors out of Ernst’s world and back into our own.

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