Surrealism gives art permission. No wild-child artist, for example, is without a debt to its ideas: Tim Hawkinson at the Whitney and Takashi Murakami at the Japan Society are carrying surrealist genes. But the actual work of the official, capital-S Surrealists—the coterie led by André Breton that worked in Paris in the twenties and thirties—is often strangely unmarvelous. Something smug, insular, and self-congratulatory suffuses the style, and the dream-prattle among its high priests can become tedious. Nothing is duller than listening to an account of someone’s dream, unless it’s watching someone else’s home movie. And Surrealism often looks like the home movie made of a dream.
“Max Ernst: A Retrospective,” recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, does not always transcend the problems of the style. The show is very large, and Ernst’s work is scattered. Still, he is easily the most interesting figure in the group. If Salvador Dalí is today the movement’s mascot—as witness the crowds at the Dalí show in Philadelphia—Ernst (1891–1976) is the thinking man’s Surrealist. He avoids the kitschier aspects of the style and, despite the Surrealist distrust of traditional formal concerns, makes pictures that respect formal values. He’s a rainbow of enthusiasms. “In the extraordinary range of his styles and techniques,” wrote the curator and art historian William Rubin, “he is to Dada and Surrealism what Picasso is to twentieth-century art as a whole.”
Ernst remains best known for his collages and collage-novels, in which he snipped apart nineteenth-century prints and rearranged the pieces into bizarre new images. The collages, at once nostalgic and forward-looking, have a magical aura; their author-wizard scrambles time, upends platitude, transforms reality, and entices whatever’s hidden to show its face. The collages are also very precise and sure-handed, prompting viewers to wander wherever whimsy leads. Many have wonderful, if somewhat arch, titles. A typical example, which depicts a brave girl standing in a demon-infested doorway, is called Marceline-Marie, coming out of the anthropophagus tree: “All my hummingbirds have alibis, and a hundred profound virtues cover my body.”
But the curators of the show—Werner Spies and Sabine Rewald—rightly do not overemphasize the already famous prints and books but, instead, lay out the many other strands in Ernst’s sensibility. Although he enjoyed the parlor games of Surrealism, Ernst was not an effete artist, and one of the surprises of the exhibit is how robust he could be. His dreams are grounded: He feels them in his fingers. In one series, for example, he would take rubbings of objects like leaves, literally stamping his work with the visceral world. This gives his dreaminess an unexpected substantiality, much as the spirituality of a Byzantine icon is enhanced by heavy paint and crusty jewels. One of his ongoing images was “the forest,” which in his hands becomes a complex, ambiguous, and always tangible environment. The forest is both an open-ended mystery and a claustrophobic place of secrets. He would often juxtapose numinous circles with the densely detailed woods.
In Ernst, the monsters are not just chimerical, and history is not just a plaything. Darkness, too, has substance. In this respect, he is the most sober of the Surrealists. He lived in France in the thirties, but watched the rise of Fascism with horror and escaped to New York after the war began. He would often lampoon or attack Fascists; in The Fireside Angel, a work from 1937, a grotesque, beaked creature dances maniacally across the surface of the Earth. And during the war, he painted several Boschian images, notably Europe After the Rain, that depict a ruined, skeletal world given over to hellish monsters; the coloring in these paintings has a sulfurous glow, like an oil bloom in stagnant water. Imagine—an artist who can move from hummingbirds to apocalypse. Ernst was a collector of varied moments, large and small. That’s why he’s difficult and worth the trouble.