”…it becomes obvious that Max Ernst’s brilliant accomplishment consisted of having developed a syntax by which the employment of this found material could be controlled. For all their independence from traditional artistic techniques and the imitation of nature, it is surprising how much stylistic unity these works evince. Thanks to his stylistic syntax Ernst created recognizable links between the works, which form a coherent sequence. Criteria of choice and criteria of employment are everywhere in evidence. Indeed, the effect of every Max Ernst image depends largely on the fact that it sets its own limits. One might add, as a general principle, that the collages and frottages are so astonishingly effective because their creator succeeded in placing conscious restrictions on the arbitrariness and amorphousness to which such semi-automatic techniques all too easily lead. Ernst not only created individual, disparate works; more importantly, with the aid of variations and series, he simultaneously created the climate in which these works live and breathe. ”
Poverty, insecurity and obluquay were in and out of his life as unwelcome companions until well into the 1950’s. He never took the easy way ; and it was only in his late years that the world gave to him unreservedly, acknowledging that as a maker and manipulator of images, he had few rivals in the history of modern art. Ernst’s rejection of art, was always given a stylistically determined form which created a new aesthetic….
Max Ernst was was a prominent and immensely talented member of the Dada movement, which began in Zurich in 1916 and assumed a particularly brilliant and obstreperous form in Cologne, where he was its ringleader from 1919 onward. When Dada moved to Paris for the final phase of its brief career, Max Ernst was once again the prototypic Dadaist. The titles of early works, such as ”Beautiful woman of the trees precocious body” ( 1919 ),”The Hat Makes the Man ” ( 1920), and ”Small Machine constructed by Minimax Dadamax himself” ( 1920) reveal him as an impish manipulator of words as well as images.
But Dada had, necessarily, a brief life. It was vivid but ephemeral; a rebellious upsurge of vital energy and rage.It resulted from the absurdity, the whole enormous ”schweinerei” of WWI. The young came back from that war in a state of stupefaction, and this rage had to find an outlet. Some of the most flamboyant members of the international Dada movement were never to be heard of again as consequential artists. They had their moment of significant exasperation, and nothing came along to replace it. But not Ernst.
From the moment he left school, he had begun assembling the materials for a long lifetime in art. More precisely he had looked into the history of his own first years with the lucidity that came from a precocious familiarity with psychoanalysis. And although he detested the Prussians’ military ambitions and resented their authority over the Rhineland, he did acquire, however unconsciously or unwillingly, a Prussian determination to stick to what he wanted to do and never leave off until it was finished.
As long as Dada stood for the overthrow of authority, Max Ernst was wholeheartedly on Dada’s side. But the authority against which he rebelled was, basically, that of his own father. Philipp Ernst was a schoolmaster and a stickler for discipline; regular and remorseless in the exercise of what then were called ”conjugal rights” . He saw to it that his wife produced a child every year. He was sober and meticulous in all things, not least in his activity as a Sunday painter of the characteristically pedestrian and stiff-jointed sort. It was in reaction against his father’s conscientious daubs that Max Ernst interested himself as a very young man in the freer artistic expression of mental patients, who often created complete worlds of their own imagining.
In 1919 Ernst spoke out against ”Mr. Average Art Lover” , who ”loves the Expressionists but turns away in disgust from the graffiti in public lavatories”. He was in the thick of the Dadaists. The subversive pranks and antagonisms was not the whole point for Ernst, though it was often the substance of the Dada movement. For Ernst it was incidental to a restructuring of the language of art; an effort to find the myths of his time.
This was a physical matter, a matter of finding new materials. Because anything could be art. Ernst felt free to pick among materials of every sort. Photographs, fashion plates, engravings from nineteenth-century magazines, engineering cross sections, standard alphabets, textbook illustrations. It was ”altered art”, with its arrangements, mismates, and odd juxtapositions that presented teasing and baffling pastiches that sometimes adopted the stances of conventional art, and mocked it directly and indirectly.
Ernst did all this at a time when the general public was disoriented in making sense of the accelerated statements in many domains of life, especially in the silent cinema. Looking had always been a slow and meditative process in which the viewer chose their own tempo. But from the moment cinema came along, acrobatics of attention became commonplace. If you didn’t keep up, you didn’t have any fun. So people kept up, in ways that would have seemed impossible to them ten years before.
Ernst’s contributions to the Dada movement were two fold. He was mainly responsible for the most notorious Dada exhibition – the ‘Dada Spring Awakening’ of 1920, probably named after the Wedekind play involving sex scenes and group masturbation. Entry to this exhibition was only possible via a public toilet, once inside you could see sexually explicit photo-montages, a fishtank full of blood with a head floating on top and an arm sticking out, a large sculpture by Ernst with an axe beside it and an invitation to smash up anything in the gallery and the exhibition’s centre piece – a young girl in a communion dress recieting obscene verses.
Perhaps his central contribution was a bit less specific. Ernst, and to some extent Hans Arp, was a bridge between Berlin and Paris, both geographically, Ernst was based in Cologne, and artistically; he had a sense of theatricality to his work seen in the ‘Spring Awakening’, which identified him with Paris Dada but he was also enough of a political artist to earn him the respect of the Berlin Dadas. Ernst pointed the way for Dada to develop – Surrealism was in embryo in Paris, but it was already a going concern in Cologne ,although this wasn’t recognised until 1922 when Ernst moved to Paris. Ernst’s work was in tune with nature and the subconscious, he was already experimenting with automatic writing and drawing and much of his art drew on the effect of his childhood trauma’s on his subconscious.
Ernst claimed in later years that from 1909 to 1914 he had carefully avoided ” all forms of study which might degenerate into gainful employment”. He was a member of a group founded in Bonn before 1914 by the painter August Macke. When French artists like Robert Delaunay came to Germany, Max Ernst was delighted to make their acquaintance and to learn what was going on in the world of pure painting. However, he was perceptively aware that the traditional materials of art are not the only materials from which great art can be made, and that the untaught scribblings of children, mad people, and obsessives of all kinds may have as much to contribute to modern art as anything that can be taught in academics.
Before 1924 Ernst’s work was called Dada, after 1924 it was called Surrealism, but his work never actually changed. It always came from his ‘natural’ emotions and was always backed up by his political intuitions. After the Dada implosion of 1924 Ernst followed what was for him, a logical progression and joined the Surrealist group with Andre Breton, where he became one of the movements most prolific artists, as he was for Dada.
“The scandals associated with the name of Max Ernst during the early post-war period have become legendary. They were sparked off by radical actions designed to épater les bourgeois to the utmost. Yet the artist’s involvement in this type of activity was sporadic and temporary. He once explained why this was so during a visit he and I made in 1967 to the great Dada retrospective in Paris. Being a Dadaist by profession, he said, was a contradiction in terms. There was no such thing as an unchanging state of revolution. And to put the spirit of Dada on exhibition, he continued, was no more than a weak illustration, like trying to capture the violence of an explosion by presenting the shrapnel.
“Behind this rejection one could sense a realization that the deep and intense despair that had triggered off the first post-war works had been rendered harmless to the point of cuteness by the subsequent, reverential appreciation of Dada. The artistic character now so matter-of-factly attributed to these works was by no means intended by Max Ernst and the other members of the Dada groups. This is indicated by the revolutionary, self-destructive elements that occur in so many of Ernst’s texts. Not only do they pillory and abuse established society, their hate is equally directed inwards, expressing itself in self-abasement and a radical renunciation of humanistic values and of belief in utopias. After a phase of extreme disillusionment which, as all the texts in Bulletin D or die schammade indicate, could react to the destruction of war only by reviling and distorting established values all the more, there gradually emerged works in which the pendulum of destruction began to swing back. The radicality with which, in the course of a few months in 1919, Ernst demolished the institutional and definitional parameters of art both traditional and avant-garde was followed before the year was out by the building of the world of collage.
”…Nonetheless, one cannot simply dismiss occultism, in part because so many important artists, writers, and scientists found it compelling; these include W.B.Yeats, Ezra Pound, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sigmund Freud, who declared in a letter written in 1921, “If I had my life to live over again, I should devote my life to psychical research rather than psychoanalysis.”
According to Birch, occultism characteristically insisted on “the substantial actuality of mental process” and “on symbols as a key to insight.” Although to some extent, late-Victorian loss of faith in traditional forms of Christianity stimulated the rise of occultism, its practitioners often believed they had not exchanged one form of supernaturalism for another. “Devotees of the occult,” in fact,
‘maintained that they were not immersed in alternative versions of the supernatural. Like scientists — indeed, some were scientists — they were enlarging the boundaries of the natural, so that spiritual experience could be assimilated into the newly secularized mind. The Theosophical Society, headed by the charismatic Madame Blavatsky, had no truck with the ritual magic of the Order of the Golden Dawn, but it too denied any entanglement with the marvellous. . . . Occult practice was founded on the discipline and examined consciousness, and in that respect it was related to the psychological and psychoanalytical sciences of the time. With their careful scrutiny of dreams and symbols, and their recognition that mental energies could be other than rational, occult explorations had much in common with innovations in psychology.’ ” ( George P. Landow )