PRINT May 1973

Max Ernst: Speculations Provoked by an Exhibition

IN THE SEMIDARK WAS a man with a trombone. His hand worked the slide in tandem to his mouth and cheeks. Taped sound flowed from the other room where people were gathered, in concert. But in the anteroom where we stood, the man kept repeating his metallic gestures. As we watched the perfect isolation of his solo, one of us supplied the inevitable label, and the word “surreal” attached itself to the mute obscurity of his act.

“Surrealism” astonishes with its ease of application—like plastic paint. We affix the word to pieces of behavior or to the chance coupling of images. And we do so almost thoughtlessly, without checking it out against a possible lexicon of meaning. Of course, André Breton has provided us with a definition:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

But in doing so he gave us no leverage on the situation of the man with the trombone. For he presented to us a technical definition, one which has no access to the phenomenology of its use. The unconscious has no clear application to the man with the trombone.

In fact, I find myself wondering: if our entire experience of SURREALISM, n., were confined to the writings of André Breton, would we have any real notion of its use? Might we not be dependent on a certain body of painting, sculpture, theater, and film for having translated a purely theoretical term into a set of specific cases? And if that’s true, then the mapping function seems to have been performed in ways that are overwhelmingly visual. The visual nature of Surrealism, that is, its essential visualness, is something never admitted by Breton. Yet in Breton’s own writing, it is always through certain visualizations that one gets a premonition of his meaning. I am thinking of two images from his novel Nadja: one in which a woman strolls, naked, through the half-light along the aisles of a movie theater; the other, the dead facade of a building, where, a moment after Nadja predicts it, one of the windows begins to glow with red light.

There are several modalities of the visible. Surrealism is one. It entered the 20th century, Kublerfashion, at a certain point, roughly in sync with Cubism. De Chirico’s art as early as 1912 is irretrievably Surreal. By the late teens two men were prepared, independently, to grasp what de Chirico had brought to light: one in Paris; the other in Cologne. In 1917 Breton saw his first de Chirico in the shop-window of a picture-dealer. Max Ernst saw his in 1919 in an art magazine with reproductions. For the next four years Ernst worked in two modes. The first, a slow and patient absorption of de Chirico, moved him toward Surrealism: Fiat Modes, Aquis Submersis, Dada in Usum Delphini. The second, a series of parodies on the process of explanation, was a long farewell to Dada: The Gramineous Bicycle, Stratified Rocks, The Hat Makes the Man. By 1923–24 with Oedipus Rex and Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale, Max Ernst had completely entered Surrealism.

Two months ago I asked Ernst if he still considered himself a Surrealist. “I can answer only if you first tell me what Surrealism is,” he said. “But I can’t,” I said. “That was going to be my next question.”

Yet the fact of the ostensive definition remains. We can point to Ernst’s Oedipus Rex and call it Surrealist. We can think of Dada in Usum Delphini as announcing Surrealism, while denying that The Hat Makes the Man does so. We can apply the term to situations—like the one in New York with the man with the trombone. There is not much disagreement.

In front of sanctuaries where, beneath intangible flag-stones, the sacred armies of Heracles were finally rotting and rusting away, bearded warriors stood guard, their pure profiles stamped with virile beauty. Along the brick walls, on the side where the rays of the sun never shone, climbed ivy and green moss.
—de Chirico, Hebdemeros

Close up, the house on the estate of Triste-le-Roy was seen to abound in superfluous symmetries and in maniacal repetitions: a glacial Diana in one lugubrious niche was complemented by another Diana in another niche; one balcony was repeated by another balcony; double steps of stairs opened into a double balustrade. A two-faced Hermes cast a monstrous shadow.
—Borges, “Death and the Compass”

My instincts tell me to look back at de Chirico for some form of explanation, to ask what Breton and Ernst saw there, to rediscover that source of affect. The results are, of course, hypothetical, tentative. But they go as follows.

For the first time in 400 years de Chirico resurrected perspective as a system of pure speculation, the representation of conjecture. His world of deserted palazzi and city squares fully acknowledges itself as a projection. Although within any given painting there are technically several perspectives, de Chirico creates the sense of a deep funnel of space extending backward along the arcades of the buildings and the vectors of the ground plane toward an approximately central vanishing point. In its illusionism, this central point of deep focus seems to be the furthest extension of a single vector beginning in the isolated, static eye of the single viewer. In that sense it returns to the mise en scène of Brunelleschi’s first exhibition of perspective painting as a working system. Standing just where Brunelleschi had stood, the viewer was to look at Brunelleschi’s representation of the Florentine Baptistry from the back of the picture—with his eye pressed up to a peephole drilled into the panel which supported the painting. In his other hand, the viewer was to hold a mirror. What he would then see through the peephole was the reflection of the pictured building—his eye firmly anchored by the peephole to the vanishing point of the perspective, and the scale of the painting fixed by the length of the outstretched arm which carried the mirror. Controlled by the rigidity of this system, the depiction of the building was to appear seamlessly integrated into the rest of the Piazza del Duomo. And for the viewer it would merge with the reality of the space that began where the limits of the mirror left off. Brunelleschi believed that his depiction would work only from that vantage point, seen at that distance: a vantage point that was uniquely unique; that worked only for one viewer at a time. Perspective was not expected to hold except at the center.

But the world is available to more than one person at a time. If we sit in a room together we feel the simultaneity of our separate vantage points interconnecting through and interconnected by the space we share. Your consciousness and mine and his are separate, yet the space we are in declares their mutuality—the intersubjectivity of our points of view. Although I am not standing where you are, I “know” what you see, more or less. (The fact of “more or less” is not particularly gripping, or interesting, or noticeable—except in certain cases, like the man with the trombone.)

In its pursuit of naturalism, Western painting imitated the mutuality of space itself. To the one-point diagram of perspective it added the kinds of visual cues which address themselves not to the solitude of a single consciousness but to the multiplicity of many viewpoints converging on a single reality. It added the touch cues of texture and atmosphere; it simulated the kinetic cues of moving light; it used cast shadow and reflections to gesture toward space as a manifold radiating outward in many directions. It denied what was implicit in pure perspective: that if more than one person at a time looks at the representation, all viewers but one will see the thing incorrectly. The surface of painting opened itself up to a simultaneity of viewers. In a sense, Monet’s huge Water Lilies, the least perspectival of all Western naturalism, go the furthest in asserting the multiple access of a world space precipitated onto the surface of painting.

And de Chirico meanwhile began to deny it. His urban landscapes are not just emptied of people. They are stripped of texture—the buildings surfaced with a uniform color which is the color of nothing particularly palpable. They are stripped of atmosphere—a pristine clarity extending all the way to the horizon. They are reinvested with the startling lucidity of the perspective diagram, and thereby with its unspoken obscurity. For what do we know of the world which is a function of a single consciousness?

This circular clearing is a temple, devoured by ancient conflagration, profaned by the malarial jungle, its god unhonored now of men. The stranger lay beneath a pedestal. He was awakened, much later, by the sun at its height. He was not astonished to find that his wounds had healed. He closed his pale eyes and slept, no longer from weakness of the flesh but from a determination of the will. He knew that this temple was the place required by his inflexible purpose.
—Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” 1939

That is the perspective which Ernst saw in de Chirico. The Oedipus Rex is that kind of diagram—its surfaces scraped of texture and unnaturally clear. The two major elements in the space of Oedipus are a hand pierced by the metal apparatus it is holding and the coupled heads of a bird and a bull. Wildly out of scale with the architecture of the space, these elements sit within it, disconnected both from it and from each other, like specters. So we say that they are images from a dream. And we say that Ernst’s space represents the space of a dream. But that is both to get and to miss the point.

The purpose which impelled him was not impossible though it was supernatural. He willed to dream a man. He wanted to dream him in minute totality and then impose him upon reality.
—Borges, Ibid.

For the dream itself must be seen as a model. It is a model for that occasion of complete privacy in which a solitary consciousness constructs a world for itself and, having done so, peoples it and manipulates its inhabitants. It is the model of that kind of reality to which one’s access is a function of one’s isolation from other minds. As such it can serve as a model for that extreme position in skeptical thought known as solipsism.

Then, on the eve, he purified himself in the waters of the river, worshiped the planetary gods, pronounced the lawful syllables of a powerful name and went to sleep. Almost at once he dreamt of a beating heart. He dreamt it active, warm, secret, the size of a closed fist, garnet-colored in the half-light of a human body that boasted as yet no sex or face. He dreamt this heart with meticulous love, for fourteen lucid nights.
—Borges, Ibid.

Pointing to the fact that there is no way of apprehending reality outside of his individual experience, the solipsist asks if sky, earth, shapes, sounds, and other bodies and their thoughts are simply, to quote Descartes, “inventions of my mind.” The solipsist declares that there is no way to assert the independent existence of other minds, just as there are no logical grounds on which to build the notion of an independent reality, outside of the solipsist’s own, on which his mind and that of another might converge. And for the solipsist the dream is a model for one’s entire experience—with an embattled reality nothing more than the phantom shreds of the dreamer’s projection.

This multiple god revealed to him that its terrestrial name was Fire, that in this same circular temple (and in others like it) it once had been offered sacrifices and been the object of a cult, and that now it would magically animate the phantom dreamt by the wizard in such wise that all creatures—except Fire itself and the dreamer—would believe the phantom to be a man of flesh and blood.
—Borges, Ibid.

As an enterprise, painting itself is not immune from solipsism. An artist can assert that he has transcribed reality—a reality that was there before he came to it, an existence independent of his efforts to record it. Doesn’t the fact that other viewers “recognize” the contents of that transcription as a reflection and echo of their own experience, the painter might ask, establish art itself as a way out of solipsism? Yet, like the dream, art is the projection of a single consciousness. So for the solipsist argument it is a model which overlaps that of the model of the dream: both of them forming perfect circles to represent the closed circuit of a consciousness locked in on itself.

The wizard suddenly recalled the words of the god. He remembered that of all the creatures composing the world, only Fire knew his son was a phantom. This recollection, comforting at first, ended by tormenting him. He feared lest his son meditate on his abnormal privilege and somehow discover his condition of mere simulacrum. Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man’s dream—what incomparable humiliation, what vertigo!
—Borges, Ibid.

The imagery of the Oedipus Rex is a threefold presentation of the solipsist nightmare. It grows out of a collage illustration which Ernst had made in 1922 for Eluard’s poem called “The Invention” (published in Répétitions). “The Invention” shows a closed room. On the back wall which is also the plane of the page is a chicken. The chicken has left two columns of tracks up the surface of the wall. The tracks have the appearance of hieroglyphs. In the side wall of the room is a window. Through the window project a giant thumb and forefinger which grip a strange instrument, one part of which is a chicken’s claw. The instrument is unmistakably a kind of printing implement with which to register multiple impressions of track marks on the page. It is as though the artist has held up before himself the picture he has made of a space that is supposedly independent from him; and has then reached around behind the page and stuck his own fingers through the paper. It is a gesture of self-mockery—a gesture that points to signs themselves as being the solipsistic creatures of their sender.

One birdless dawn the wizard watched the concentric conflagration close around the walls: for one instant he thought of taking refuge in the river, but then he understood that death was coming to crown his old age and to absolve him of further work. He walked against the florid banners of the fire. And the fire did not bite his flesh but caressed and engulfed him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he, too, was all appearance, that someone else was dreaming him.
—Borges, Ibid.

In Oedipus Rex, Ernst repeats the gesture of “The Invention”—the funnel of a deep perspective space stretches away from the vantage point of the single viewer/dreamer. But piercing through the side wall of that funnel comes the enormous hand of the viewer/dreamer, to remind himself of the authorship of his own projection. The hand holds a walnut and a metallic object which pierces both the flesh of the hand and that of the nut. The title of the painting, the nut’s own shape and the fact of its being pierced, prompt one to read it as a surrogate eye. At the furthest limit of the painting’s space a tiny airborne balloon echoes the shape of the nut. The balloon serves as an emblem of the pictorial vanishing point—a reminder that the cone of vision which begins in the eye is inverted by perspective into the conical projection of space which ends at a point opposite the organ of sight. In the Oedipus Rex the artist carries the symbol of his own eye into the foreground of his vision—using the similarity between it and the emblematic vanishing point to collapse the space of the painting. And this collapse has, of course, nothing to do with the collapse of a formalist space. It is instead a metaphysical closure which leaves intact the experience of a visual plunge into depth. In this sense it both anticipates and parallels a Borgesian perception of reality—Borges, who first published with the proto-Surrealist “Ultraists” in 1923 in Spain.

In subsequent works, like the frottages for the Histoire Naturelle series, Ernst filled the space of an exterior world with the emblem of a huge, staring eye. I asked him about the eye. “It’s the artist’s own eye,” he said.

The de Menil collection of Max Ernst’s painting and sculpture has been touring Europe for the last two years—exhibited in various cities in France and Germany. This past February it opened in Houston. The paintings and drawings which comprise the collection do not so much document the formation of his art, as serve as examples drawn from 1925 and after of Ernst’s use of frottage, grattage, and decalcomania: those techniques which he devised to implant the surfaces of foreign objects onto the surface of canvas or paper in order to draw his image out of those resultant textures. As such they represent one facet of Ernst’s movement beyond the de Chirico-like exploration of perspective. Yet the content of Ernst’s earlier Surrealism is left unchanged. For the frottage technique creates a parallel between the naked page of the paper and the retina of the eye, both of which register impressions from a putatively independent reality; and both of which are seen as unremittently processing that reality through the closed consciousness of the artist. The large 1933 painting, The Fragrant Forest, projects the texture of wood-graining into the found imagery of a forest which spreads the figuration of trees over the picture like a curtain, to create a cataractlike obscuring of sight. As in the Oedipus Rex, the image of the eye as both near object and emblematic vanishing point hovers indeterminately within the tangle of vegetation. In the foreground of the painting is the perforated white contour of a bird.

The bird is the persona that Max Ernst worked out to represent himself. In German the bird’s name is Hornebom; in French it is Loplop. It is the name of a parrot which was Ernst’s childhood pet. As an adult he made it become the name and image by which he designated his own presence within the projected world of his painting. The de Menil exhibition contains a few objects from the remarkable series entitled Loplop Presents in which, beginning in the early 1930s, Ernst formulated yet another image of painting as the situation in which the artist presents the self to the self.

The two aspects of Ernst’s art which the exhibition presents nearly in their entirety are his sculptural oeuvre and his illustrated books. In the course of the latter, one sees Ernst developing the Surrealist collage principle, beginning with the illustrations he made for the two collections of Eluard’s poetry—Les Malheurs des Immortels (1920) and Repétitions (1922)—and issuing into the two great novelistic cycles—La Femme 100 Têtes (1929) and Une Semaine de Bonté (1934). There one sees how the hundred-headed woman of Surrealism is made to flower within the two normative categories of reality: a sequential unfolding of time and a continuous extension of space. For each of the plates of La Femme 100 Têtes begins with a late 19th-century engraving which is premised on the continuities of a perspectival space. With extreme stealth Ernst insinuates into these scenes material which is foreign to them, sometimes figures taken from books illustrating classical art, sometimes objects from engineering manuals, or details from fashion catalogues. The result is the transformation of the space of, say, a normal room into the space of the man with the trombone.

At that concert in New York, our simultaneous, collective purpose became a model for what we thought was the continuous nature of the space we shared. Some of us might have liked the music we were hearing; others might have hated it. But nonetheless the music formed the mutuality of focus that allows one person to say, and believe, that he “knows” what is on another person’s mind. The surreality of the man with the trombone was that he shattered that calm by raising a question about the possibility of such knowledge; for it was impossible to figure out what he could be thinking of, silently working the slide of some unheard and—to use a favorite word of Breton’s—unwonted instrumentation. His presence was like Ernst’s fingers wriggling through the sides of the Oedipus Rex, or like the Venus who joins the billiard players in La Femme 100 Têtes. It is a presence that disrupts, without flattening, the metaphysical continuity of space. It is like the Borges’ answer from Other Inquisitions:

Why does it make us uneasy to know that the map is within the map and the thousand and one nights are within the book of A Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
—“Partial Enchantments of the Quixote

Rosalind Krauss