According to his 1948 autobiography, “Max Ernst died the 1st of August, 1914. He resuscitated the 11th of November 1918 as a young man aspiring to become a magician and to find the myth of his time.” During the four years of purgatory that the artist served in the German artillery, he witnessed the industrialized slaughter of World War I, a debacle described by Ernest Hemingway as “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth.” But you wouldn’t have known it from the politicians—not only the Boche but also the British and French authorities allowed no photographs of corpses to sully the daily papers.
Demobbed and disgusted, Ernst became the high priest of collage, a newly evolving art form made from the fragments and detritus of popular culture. By 1929, he had joined the surrealists living in Paris and finished
the first of his “collage novels.” Using Victorian-era engravings, Ernst created visual hurly-burlies that mocked bourgeois probity: Dark rooms stuffed with flocked wallpaper, ornate furniture, chaste maidens, and coattailed gentlemen collide with botanical specimens, anatomical charts, and anthropological oddities. In And the Butterflies Began to Sing, from the collage novel La femme 100 têtes , all manner of moths, huge as they crowd the foreground, are drawn to a gas lamp that accurately illuminates a colonnade—cut from an entirely different graphic source—that is filled with bowing and scraping skeletons.
“Monster! Do you realize I’m in love?!” portrays two nuns wearing grotesque metal helmets that resemble metastasized welders’ hoods; a painter’s palette lying on the floor (the thumb of a disembodied artist still juts through the handhold); and a naked woman climbing a tree outside the leaded window. Under Ernst’s unerringly precise knife, these disparate elements meld into a seamless tableau.
These images are certainly absurd, but they are far from nonsensical. To lapsed-Catholic Ernst, the robed gorgons may have represented the strife in his homeland, an economic basket case where the ascendant brownshirts brutally attacked any opposition, the arts were under profound assault, and the church was too often on the side of repression. Hitler—whose banal watercolors exposed a rigid, middlebrow taste—made a return to classical German art (often at its most kitschy) his personal crusade. A few years into the f rule, two of Ernst’s paintings were among hundreds exhibited in the “Entarte Kunst” show, a notorious attempt by the Nazis to illustrate the moral degeneracy purveyed by modern artists. In a letter to Austrian chanteuse Lotte Lenya (one of many women the handsome Ernst pursued, and a rare one not bedded), he wrote of this period, with a wryness typical of his work: “The cat came into the dining room at lunchtime and threw up a whole mouse. It was most appetizing, and I was forced to think of Germany.”
Using a form of painting called decalcomania, Ernst achieved surfaces with some affinity to vomit. By smushing one canvas against another covered with wet paint and then peeling them apart, he exposed puckered, drooling oil pigment that shifted in color and texture, mimicking fungoid, putrefying landscapes.
Europe After the Rain (begun in 1940, when Ernst was interred in France as an enemy alien, and finished in ’42, after he’d escaped to America with the help of wife number three, Peggy Guggenheim) is a masterpiece of projected dread. Channeling the mud and blood of the First World War’s charnel house trenches, Ernst visualizes an apocalyptic cityscape where rock walls and stone columns have been corroded as if by acid. Blistered green skin hangs like tattered banners, and only buxom harlots and mutant, bird-headed warriors have lived to tell the tale. Ernst possessed grim foresight: While the setting could be Dresden, it seems even closer to Hiroshima.
Other paintings are artistically prescient: the carnivorous sexual tension of A Night of Love, from 1927, prefigures Francis Bacon’s carnal demimonde by decades. The geometric composition of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine masterpiece First Landing Jump (1961), with its coarse dark strap yanked through a round light fixture, was already diagrammed in Ernst’s 1936
Loplop Presents a Young Girl, the heroine’s black hair spilling from a circular piece of hardware. Both these artists at times surpassed Ernst as pure painters, and Joseph Cornell often outdid him as a collagist, but these artistic heirs never eclipsed the conflicted beauty of a work like Free Balloon (1922). This muddily painted tile relief depicts a belching brick smokestack, squat doorways filled with flames, and a clumsy hot-air balloon straining to lift off. In the distance another balloon is escaping across a mountainous frontier—like a perpetual exile, drifting a bit, perhaps, but unafraid to confront madness with artistic truth.