New York

Max Ernst, Sambesiland, 1921, photographic enlargement of photomontage with ink mounted on paperboard, 6 13/16 x 9 1/8".

Max Ernst, Sambesiland, 1921, photographic enlargement of photomontage with ink mounted on paperboard, 6 13/16 x 9 1/8".

Max Ernst

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Max Ernst, Sambesiland, 1921, photographic enlargement of photomontage with ink mounted on paperboard, 6 13/16 x 9 1/8".

Locating and mapping the human unconscious was a primary plotline within the braided narratives of modernism, and it fell to the Surrealist painters to represent the inchoate structures and unverbalized agendas of this newly explored dark continent. The texture of the twentieth century is fading in our memory, as the talking cure listens to Prozac and the end of history scrambles not to become the history of the end—but the fortuitously timed Max Ernst retrospective reminded us that conditions of epic urgency surround us and that art is allowed to claim them as its contextual domain.

If being born German at the turn of the past century meant conscription into the wrong side of a multigenerational bad trip, it also meant sharing in the German-speaking world’s response to modernity, which would eventually connect Dada, V-2 rockets, and the discovery of LSD. Ernst’s peripatetic existence put him at the illusive center of the cutting edge several times on two continents, and made him a crucial conduit for radical memes within the mid-century transatlantic scene. A thread runs from him through Wols, Konrad Klaphek, Sigmar Polke, and Albert Oehlen to inscribe a zone of German painting characterized by physical inventiveness in the service of a harsh fusion of mysticism and sarcasm.

It’s art-historical boilerplate to slot Ernst as a “painter of dreams,” but we all know how boring other people’s dreams are (nightmares a bit less so). Whether one sees his pictures as communiqués from the id, visionary shamanistic artifacts, or a form of whistling past the graveyard depends on one’s chosen model of the psyche, but viewed through any filter, he and his cohorts revealed a realm with which the “advanced” West has never been comfortable and which until the twentieth century had only sporadically made its way up to the surface of our collective picture plane. (It is forever shocking that Bosch could see what he saw when he saw it.)

Ernst’s work really kicked in after his experiences in the German army during World War I, when he began to internalize the tactics of Dada and to formulate his own idiosyncratic response to de Chirico. Surrealist painting has tended to be parsed along a spectrum running from the “abstract” (Masson) to the “representational” (Dalí), but Ernst’s work reveals the bankruptcy of these distinctions in the face of an unprecedented subject matter. A more crucial theoretical issue is the new reciprocity between materials and procedures (what we now call “process”) and its implications for the problem of rendering as the go-to mode of depiction in Western painting. Ernst had neither the patience nor the talent for the old-masterish bravura of Dalí or Tanguy, and he must have understood the danger of the theatrical, postcards-from-the-edge quality that appeared later in the work of lesser Surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Kurt Seligmann. Nevertheless, a painting like Celebes, from 1921, which is exemplary of Ernst’s immediate postwar period, while too weird and formally powerful to be considered derivative, still exists comfortably within the sign-painterly style that cuts an arc from de Chirico through Magritte to Kahlo and, later, Picabia, in all of whose hands this flat-footed idiom was put to telling use.

Through his exploration of collage and, a few years later, the discovery of rubbing and related techniques in his paintings and drawings, Ernst showed himself the exit from this dilemma of how to embody his startlingly new subjects. The physical manipulation of magazine photographs and engravings facilitated the construction of beings and spaces totally unavailable to conventional drawing. Collages like The Chinese Nightingale, 1920, or Sambesiland, 1921, for example, have the shocking presence of psychic objects that—even if imagined—one never expected to see. Meanwhile, Ernst’s literal and figurative digging around in his paintings triggered chains of association of unbelievable richness, which would not have been available to him through any other working methods. By 1926–27, in works like Forest and The Large Forest, any trace of painting-as-usual has been eliminated in favor of a futuristic totemism fusing archeological and natural elements and setting the stage on which his deepest explorations would take place. (While conventional techniques never left his work altogether, these process-driven approaches catalyzed a new specificity. The incredibly beautiful paintings in the series “Garden Aeroplane Trap,” 1935–36, are truly dreamlike; their crystalline images are impossible to name and nearly impervious to retention in the mind’s eye.)

Ernst’s great subject was nature, but not as it has been generally understood in the West. From the mid-’20s on, his investigations revealed a parallel dimension of flora and fauna, which reverberated through his work for the rest of his life. He seems to have been profoundly aware of the interconnectedness of living things, and to have harbored a deep (and quite understandable) unease at the destructive entropy hardwired into human social networks. Civilization’s discontents seesaw for ascendancy with the raw, unfathomable power of the biotic energy system. In The Entire City, 1935–36, nature seems to have “won”: A ruin worthy of H. P. Lovecraft lies dead under a swollen moon as an irrepressible jumble of exotic flowers pushes up from the bottom of the painting. The Joy of Living, 1936, and the large masterpiece A Moment of Calm, 1939, respectively lyrical and ominous, reveal a world of relentless growth quite deaf to history.

Later the seesaw tilted back, with society and culture subverting the majesty of natural systems. In Totem and Taboo, 1941, a blanket of death creeps into the forest, while Europe After the Rain, 1940–42, emerges as the full-on scariest cautionary tale in modern art: a decimated wasteland made manifest through painterly alchemy and populated by lost ghosts and evil mutants. In Inspired Hill, 1950, a red-hot radioactive desert pulsating under a distant sun feels more like the dead planet Mars than Earth.

The bird-headed warrior so disturbingly prominent in Europe After the Rain belongs to a patchwork race of chimeric aliens that populated Ernst’s work continuously after the late ’20s, acting out creepy and inscrutable social rituals. The Robing of the Bride, 1940, is a twisted glimpse of prenuptial psychosexual vamping and reptilian bestiality, and Surrealism and Painting, 1942, is a tender and unsettling vignette of a softly phallic parent-and-child alien-artist duo collaborating on a “pure” abstraction in some dematerialized extra-planetary studio. These pictures of other worlds are like X-rays of our own, revelatory afterimages squirming behind the screen of reality.

Much of Ernst’s work doesn’t look so interesting now; his detachment and his need to be amusing can impart a phoned-in quality, and the sculpture, at least at the Met, felt like tie-in toys to the paintings. But no one of his generation dove deeper than Ernst did when he really held his breath and went for it. He lived in the century of world war, totalitarianism, space travel, abstraction, genetics, psychoanalysis, atomic energy, mass media, psychedelics, and science fiction, and something of all of this made it into his work, which also achieved ancient ancestral connections. Little of the advanced art of the last fifty years (for which Dada and Surrealism, by the law of unintended consequences, are partly responsible) can make that kind of claim on our attention. It may be too much to label Ernst the first painter of ecological warnings (they didn’t even call our living world “the environment” in his day), but he gave unprecedented and indelible form to the appalling fear known to any aware person in his time, or our own.

Carroll Dunham is a New York–based artist.