New York

Max Ernst

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This first major museum show of Max Ernst to take place in New York in thirty years stakes a grand claim for his importance to twentieth-century art, and to the development of modern painting in particular. “Only Picasso,” announces a wall text at the exhibition’s entrance, “played as decisive a role in the invention of modern techniques and styles.” Ernst’s technical inventions in the 175 works on view include the “overpainting” of the Dada pictures that are commonly called collages, as well as the semiautomatist frottage, grattage, decalcomania, and “oscillation” processes of his Surrealist works. Emphasizing the role that technical innovation plays throughout the artist’s oeuvre, the show gave prominent placement in its first gallery to Ernst’s seminal 1921 oil-on-canvas Celebes, which displays the artist’s transposition of certain effects of collage into easel painting—a technique associated in this exhibition and elsewhere with the artist’s “proto-Surrealism” (and developed partly in response to the pioneering work of Giorgio de Chirico). Ernst’s last major technique, the “oscillation” process, was visible at the Met in paintings like Surrealism and Surrealism and Painting (both 1940), made while the artist was in New York. For these works, Ernst would punch holes in tin cans filled with liquid pigment, hang strings from the cans, and set them in motion above canvases prepared with large, mostly rectilinear expanses of scumbled paint—resulting in the semiabstract landscapes and cosmic vistas that should, this exhibition suggests (to my mind unconvincingly), be understood to anticipate Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings of the late 1940s and ’50s.

By framing Ernst’s achievements in terms of technical and stylistic innovation, the exhibition’s organizers, art historian Werner Spies (an Ernst expert who has made prodigious contributions to the field) and Metropolitan curator Sabine Rewald, downplay the side of his work that can be described as “literary.” The move is not novel, but its effects in this context are pronounced. Again and again in his criticism Clement Greenberg decried the literariness of Surrealism, and it is almost as if this exhibition had a tacit, counterintuitive aspiration to secure Ernst’s position within an expanded canon of implicitly antiliterary (or at least nonliterary) modernist painting. (Indeed, the conceit of placing Ernst alongside Picasso extends, in no small measure, an earlier claim by William Rubin in his Dada and Surrealist Art [1968], cited by Spies in a catalogue essay: “In the extraordinary range of his styles and techniques [Ernst] is to Dada and Surrealism what Picasso is to twentieth-century art as a whole.”) It’s not that Ernst’s explicitly literary works have been left out of the exhibition. On the contrary, a significant number of collages produced for the graphic novels La Femme 100 têtes, 1929; Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, 1929–30; and Une semaine de bonté, 1934, are on display. But with the artist’s handwritten captions for the most part neither translated nor reproduced on the wall labels or in the exhibition catalogue (apart from the original words visible within the plates them-selves), the textual components of Ernst’s early works suffer particular neglect, even as, for example, the exhibition’s thought-provoking arrangement of pictures from his Cologne period—notable among them Celebes; Ambiguous Object, ca. 1919; Always the Best Man Wins, 1920; The Master’s Bedroom, 1920; and Oedipus Rex, 1922—makes vivid his foundational preoccupation with technologies of inscription and their relation to pictorial figuration and graphic visualization more broadly conceived.

All of which prompts the question: For all of Ernst’s technical inventiveness as a painter, is not his major contribution actually to be found elsewhere? It hardly needs saying, for example, that what can be seen as “proto-Surrealist” in works like Celebes is the artist’s attempt at a more-or-less Freudian construction of a pictorial analogue to the imagery of dreams, childhood fantasies, and their figuration in language. As early as 1920, Ernst—who prior to World War I had studied philosophy and abnormal psychology at the University of Bonn and was familiar with Freud’s writings as well as those of psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin—presented his paintings and collages as psychoanalytically informed aesthetic experiments in self-understanding and misunderstanding, and the reception of his work in those terms took center stage with the acclamation of his collages by André Breton, Paul Eluard, and other future Surrealists in Paris in 1921. Psychoanalysis has therefore been central to the interpretation of Ernst’s work and its particular forms of pictorial innovation from a range of perspectives, and justly so.

Yet, because psychoanalytic theory so often simultaneously undergirds and constrains our understanding of Ernst’s art, it may be worthwhile to set its language aside, at least temporarily. In particular, when reflecting on the Met’s retrospective look at the artist, it might be productive to speak of dreams and their emergence in other, though not unrelated, contexts. Consider, for example, Walter Benjamin’s “Dream-Kitsch (Gloss on Surrealism),” written in 1925 and published in 1927, in which the literary critic argues for a recognition of something like the historicity of dreams in the Surrealists’ recasting of commonplace maxims and picture books. Although Benjamin is cited frequently in the exhibition catalogue, no reference is made to the analysis of Ernst’s work in this particular essay—perhaps because here Benjamin presents kitsch, rather than great painting, as the standard by which to measure Ernst’s success.

“Dreams now,” Benjamin writes, “are a shortcut to banality.” He has in mind the banality of late-nineteenth-century childhood, and, more precisely, the banality of the world of domestic interiors and sentimental exchanges in which bourgeois parents of that epoch enclosed their children: the world Benjamin (1892–1940) inhabited in Berlin and Ernst in Brühl. That world, according to Benjamin, reduced children to “crimped picture puzzles” confronted with the “abysmal entanglements [of the] ornament of conversation.” But, at the same time, within those variously crimped, abysmal, ornamental projections of sentiment dwelt “heartfelt sympathy, love, kitsch.” Surrealism at its best, argues Benjamin, strives to reconstruct, according to the logic of dreams, a form of dialogue peculiar to this historical moment of nineteenth-century childhood. Moreover, in Benjamin’s reading, Surrealism sets out to compel our recognition that the “dialogic misunderstanding” that arises between parents and children provides a structure through which “the only true reality forces its way into the conversation.” Which is to say that, for Benjamin, it is by means of a certain kind of affectively charged misunderstanding of what their elders tell them that children come to grasp what things can do and mean, and thereby gain a purchase on the world.

It is in this context that Benjamin provides a brief analysis of Ernst’s frontispiece for Eluard’s 1922 book of poems titled Répétitions (the artist’s 1921 overpainting, from which the frontispiece illustration was reproduced, appeared at the Met). In this work, Benjamin says, “Ernst has drawn four small boys. They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over a balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests on its point in the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was as yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves superior. When we reach for the banal, we take hold of the good along with it—the good that is there (open your eyes) right before you.” The boys in Ernst’s overpainting appear to be gazing, hands shading their eyes, at a hot-air balloon high in the sky outside their classroom—another object, in addition to the very big red pencil, that is potentially, or perhaps only notionally, within their grasp.

In this work, as in others from around 1920, Ernst uses for his support a page from a teaching-aids catalogue that promulgated the “purposeful expansion of the sensory activity of children,” and to that end advertised devices to assist teachers in delivering “lessons in visual perception” (Anschauungsunterricht). On the original, unpainted catalogue page, a schoolmaster surveys the work of his pupils as they raise their hands to inscribe mathematical calculations on a blackboard that is in fact the teaching aid the advertisement promotes (indeed some letters of the word Schreibfläche, or “writing surface,” can still be seen through the blue of the sky to the left of the balloon). As Rosalind Krauss has suggested to different ends in her analysis of another overpainting, The Master’s Bedroom, when taken over as the support for Ernst’s work the entire page itself becomes a kind of writing surface. And the pencil, added to the picture by Ernst, might be seen as a stand-in for the agent of the boys’ transformation into children who “show themselves superior” to the world of their parents by reaching for the banal and, in so doing, taking hold of the good—grasping, that is, objects endowed with the heartfelt sentiment and love that dwell alongside kitsch. Thus the big red pencil might be said, instrumentally speaking, to have taken the place of the schoolmaster who no longer even knows where to look; it emerges as a massive, and massively influential, teaching aid that writes the boys into the picture, as it were. The page as overpainted by Ernst, then, not only obscures but supplants the blackboard advertised in the teaching-aids catalogue—with Ernst’s work thereby presenting itself, especially when published as the frontispiece to Eluard’s Répétitions, as the object of a renovated perception and, as such, an apparatus of a new kind of pedagogy. (Benjamin, it’s worth mentioning, conceived the technique of “literary montage” that he announced as the “method” of his monumental, unfinished Arcades Project [1927–40] as a form of Anschauungsunterricht.)

Addressed to those who are at once readers and beholders of his art, Ernst’s captions similarly cultivate “dialogic misunderstanding” and present “lessons in perception” in something like the sense Benjamin intends. Integral to the pictures of which they are a handwritten part (as in the overpaintings) or to which they are appended in print (as in the collage novels), the captions enact, in words, the transformed relations of subject and object, and of image and inscription, that remained a centerpiece of Ernst’s art throughout his career. In the case of Ambiguous Figures (1 Copper Plate, 1 Zinc Plate, 1 Rubber Cloth . . .) ca. 1919–20, a remarkable work that to the best of my knowledge has not been included in any previous retrospective, Ernst’s words—in translation, 1 COPPER PLATE 1 ZINC PLATE 1 RUBBER CLOTH 2 CALIPERS 1 DRAINPIPE TELESCOPE 1 PIPE MAN—frame a picture drawn and painted on a page of engraved illustrations from the same teaching-aid catalogue mentioned above. For Ernst, the catalogue was an object of “fascination,” a source of visions, and an inspiration for what he described as his attempt, in the overpaintings of 1919 to 1921, “to reproduce exactly that which was seen in me . . . to obtain a true, fixed image of my hallucination in order to transform what previously had been merely banal pages of advertising into dramas that contained my most secret desires.”

For Ernst as for Benjamin, then, kitsch was what the children of the late nineteenth century knew, or rather what they learned from; kitsch was a form of instruction in visual perception, and its images took up residency inside them. Crucial to Ernst’s account of overpaintings as reproductions of what was “seen” inside him is the implication that the catalogue was a source of visions first incorporated into him and then, through the process of drawing and painting on the commercially printed sheet, projected back onto the “banal pages of advertising.” In other words, as if by means of a reenactment of the Anschauungsunterricht of children in the artist’s own attempt at a “purposeful expansion of sensory activity,” those banal pages offered up images that entered into him, rather than providing the illusion of a world into which he might have stepped. By means of drawing and painting, understood as technologies of projection, Ernst then refigured those pages as containers for the drama of what he enigmatically calls his “most secret desires—” desires that, needless to say, may themselves have been implanted in him along with the catalogue images.

The sort of incorporation of banal images Ernst recounts with regard to the teaching-aids catalogue emerges as central to Benjamin’s “Dream-Kitsch.” According to Benjamin, art, or, more precisely, “what we used to call art,” has receded from the body of its beholder. He continues, “But now in kitsch, the world of things advances on the human being; it yields to his uncertain grasp and ultimately fashions its figures in his interior. The new man bears within himself the very quintessence of the old forms, and what evolves in the confrontation with a particular milieu from the second half of the nineteenth century—in the dreams, as well as the words and images, of certain artists—is a creature who deserves the name of ‘furnished man.’”

Ernst’s works are not illustrations but incomplete prefigurations of Benjamin’s conception of kitsch and its potential to transform perception and personhood alike. In “Dream-Kitsch” and elsewhere, Benjamin assumes the present impossibility of producing works of art that would succeed in soliciting the authentically empathetic projection of their beholders. This is what he means when he says that “what we used to call art begins at a distance of two meters from our body”; if the paintings we look at now are merely things “we used to call art,” they can no longer carry us across those two meters and into the world they depict. Benjamin further asserts the necessity of displacing what now amount to simulations of empathy with technologies and effects of incorporation that he (and also, I suggest, Ernst) understood already to be determinative in modernity (the mission of the teaching-aids catalogue and its promotion of Anschauungsunterricht is exemplary in this latter regard). The demand for a renovation of his contemporaries’ relation to kitsch that Benjamin articulated in the 1920s has to be understood in relation to what would emerge, in the 1930s, as his larger ambition to come to terms with “the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility” (as the title of his most famous essay puts it), and, indeed, to reconceive the writing of history and philosophy, in part as new forms of Anschauungsunterricht, to which the incorporation and the seeing anew of images (both pictures and kinds of writing) would be crucial. Called by Benjamin “furnished man” (der möblierte Mensch), the creature who demonstrates a primitive form of those new ways of taking in and seeing images is the hero of Max Ernst’s art, the ambiguous figure of the “pipe man” (röhrender Mensch) named in the punning, self-referential caption of Ambiguous Figures—a creature who, outfitted with a laboratory safety mask, inked-on seaweed nose, bulbous Pyrex genitals, and a torso complete with handles to be grasped and cranked, supplants the image of the “touching man” (rührender Mensch) and his surefire effects of empathy. That Ernst managed, as early as 1920, to invent a pictorial form—the captioned overpainting—in which to introduce an “ambiguous figure” of such canny and uncanny comic effects, indicates his singular and substantial contribution to that version of modernism that made literariness and its effects of estrangement integral to the making of pictures.

Brigid Doherty teaches in the Departments of German and Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.