Some artists are destined to endure the hazards of “interesting times,” and Max Ernst (1891-1976) was one of them. In a period when France and Germany were bitter enemies, Ernst was a German national serving in the ranks of the French Surrealists-which in itself sounds more like the script of an absurdist comedy than the biography of an anti-Nazi émigré. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the absurdist element was compounded when Ernst was promptly interned by the French as an enemy alien-the first of the three internments that he survived before finding refuge in New York in the early 1940’s.
He was thus part of the exodus of European artists and writers from the Nazi occupation of France-an exodus that profoundly altered the art history of the modern era by establishing New York as the art capital of the Western world and elevating the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School to a position of leadership in the international avant-garde.
As we are now reminded by Max Ernst: A Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nothing was more alien to Ernst’s sensibility than the abstractionist aesthetic of the New York School. He had, after all, been one of the founding members of the Dada and Surrealist movements, and the work of his artistic maturity was marked at every turn by the sardonic, anti-establishment attitudes of their révolté ideologies. By training and temperament, moreover, Ernst was a symbolist and iconographer who brought a prodigious gift for graphic invention to his pictorial medium.
His work abounds in the kind of illustrational detail that the votaries of abstraction abjured. What saves this glut of illustrational detail from degeneration into academic pastiche is the passion and imagination that Ernst brought to his principal subject, which was nothing less than the fate of European civilization in the age of totalitarian terror. As Werner Spies recalls for us in his essay in the catalog of the Met’s retrospective, no artist had a better understanding than Ernst of the catastrophe that had overtaken Europe.
“Few artists expressed the political realities of the 1930s and their subsequent years in exile as clearly in their work as did Ernst,” Mr. Spies writes. ” Fireside Angel, and Une Semaine de Bonté, for example, took a stand in the 1930s. The major canvas, Europe after the Rain I, painted shortly after Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, suggests how the coming disaster will change the face of the European continent. And Vox Angelica, undertaken in Sedona soon after his escape to the United States in the middle of the war, reveals his continuing engagement with the political situation. Vox Angelica is a picture that explores memory and also one that provides information about the depressing situation of the emigrant. In addition to recapitulating the feelings of the years before his escape, it shows Ernst finding his way in his new surroundings. Incidentally, in its preoccupation with memory and recollection it is focused on precisely the concerns the painters of the New York School would attempt to repudiate in the 1950s.”
In all of his work, which is unusually varied in content and style, Ernst remained a disabused German Romantic, dreaming the dreams of the dark forests of allegory while awakening to the mordant realities of 20th-century Europe. Surrealism, for him, was less a style or a method than a state of mind-which may be why he was so shameless in his appropriation of other artists’ imagery. There are whole areas of Ernst’s oeuvre that are little more than variants of Klee, de Chirico and other modern masters. Yet it’s also one of the paradoxes of Ernst’s talents that he brought a wholly original conception to the collage medium, endowing it with levels of meaning that were never dreamed of in the collages of Braque and Picasso.
For all of these reasons, visitors to Max Ernst: A Retrospective should prepare to be confused by the sheer variety and range of media, methods and experiment. In some respects, the exhibition is a chaos of conflicting impulses-but then, so was Ernst himself. As Sabine Rewald, one of the curators of this retrospective, writes in the catalog: “A German surrealist might appear to be an oxymoron. But after he moved to France Max Ernst was one.”
Max Ernst: A Retrospective remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 10.