Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

For the Love of the ‘Schland Part Three: The Surreal World of Max Ernst

Capping off this small trilogy on the art of Deutschland, it is worth our time to explore the complex visions of Max Ernst. German art of modernity is known for being expressive, emotional, mysterious, full of angst, and sometimes haunting. Much of modern German art dabbled in the avant-garde. The Germans pioneered Expressionism, a movement that is sometimes defined by a single iconic painting, The Scream, by Edvard Munch. Painters such as Munch, Kirchner, and Schele reacted against movements such as Naturalism and Impressionism. And then there’s Max Ernst.

Click image to enlarge. Photograph of Max Ernst.

Click image to enlarge. Photograph of Max Ernst.

Max Ernst (1891-1976) took the avant-garde a bit further with the Dada and Surrealism movments, both developing during the unfolding of the first World War. When we think of Surrealism, we think of its rock star, Salvador Dali, yet despite my bias toward Spanish art, I think there is a captivating layer to the worlds created by Max Ernst that surpasses some of Dali’s antics.

Ernst was known for studying the lives of the mentally ill, using their inspiration to explore the unconcsious mind and express it. He did the same with the influential writings of Sigmund Freud, particularly with respect to the signifance of dreams.

Underlying Ernst’s artistic expressions is often a social commentary. Ernst was enlisted in the Germany army during World War I and fought in an artillery division. He directly experienced the horrors of trench warfare, which left him devasted and psychologically wounded. He relocated to France after the war where he lived and worked for a number of years. When World War II broke out he fled to the United States with the help of American heiress and artistic patron, Peggy Guggenheim, whom he married briefly. A few years after WWII ended, Ernst returned to France where he spent the rest of his life.

One of Ernst’s most compelling works is Europe After the Rain II. Started during his time in France and not completed until he came to the United States, this painting depicts a surreal landscape of Europe after the desolation of war. Ernst created an earlier Europe After the Rain after WWI that resembles a relief map. This second version, much different in color and composition, shows the emotional toll the land and its people have taken after the terrors of warfare.

Click image to enlarge. Max Ernst (German), Europe After the Rain II, 1941, oil on canvas, 54 x 146 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.

Click image to enlarge. Max Ernst (German), Europe After the Rain II, 1941, oil on canvas, 54 x 146 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.

Tall structures suggest the ruin of well known architecture and the heavily overlapping textures point to the molestred landscape as well as the mangled minds of its inhabitants. However, the blue sky and the bright and saturated colors of the landscape’s elements suggest hope.

Ernst created many different composite animals and other types of metamorphic creatures in his works to convey ideas. They are heavily symbolic and often difficult to interpret which is, of course, a trademark of Surrealism. One such creature is the lone subject of Fireside Angel, a painting with a direct political interpretation as explained by Ernst himself.

Click image to enlarge. Max Ernst (German), Fireside Angel, 1937, oil on canvas, 112.5 x 144 cm, private collection.

Click image to enlarge. Max Ernst (German), Fireside Angel, 1937, oil on canvas, 112.5 x 144 cm, private collection.

Ernst stated that this work was a reaction to the result of the Spanish Civil War, with the loss of the Republicans to the Nationalists whose leader was General Francisco Franco. The Spanish conflict was a foreshadowing of sorts for the second World War, with Franco becoming Spain’s fascist dictator for the following 36 years. Ernst’s Fireside Angel has an ironic title, as this figure seems more of an angel of Lucifer than anything else. This is a destructive figure. Despite its bright colors, its form is erratic and aggressive. Its stance is hugely expressive, as if it will blindly wreak havoc through any territory, destroying everything in its path. Above all the figure’s face, with unseeing eyes and a mouth open wide displaying a clear set of fangs, is what makes this a complete monster.

Speaking of grotesque composite creatures, Ernst has treated a common subject in art in which these creatures emerge, The Temptation of St. Anthony. A favorite subject of painters throughout the history of art for its potentional for creativity, St. Anthony the Abbot was a devout monk and hermit of the ancient world. According to many interpretations of St. Anthony’s tale, the Abbot took a pilgrimage to an Egyptian desert, during which he was stalked and plagued by demons and temptations. Though the demons and temptations created a multitude of horrific obstacles, Anthony stayed true to the light of God and was able to overcome them.

Click image to enlarge. Max Ernst (German), The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945, oil on canvas, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisberg, Germany.

Click image to enlarge. Max Ernst (German), The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945, oil on canvas, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisberg, Germany.

The surreal depiction of this subject from the mind of Max Ernst is one of the more terrifying versions from the history of art. Many artists in centuries past painted a calm and unmolested St. Anthony surrounded by demons determind to thwart him. Ernst has painted the protagonist in the midst of literal physical torture by these trademark devils. The creatures hold the long body of the saint across the foreground of the composition, twisting him and attacking him from feet to shoulders. In front of a landscape similar to Europe After the Rain II, the group of figures crowd the foreground, preventing a view beyond theirs. This eerie atmosphere is familiar to St. Anthony’s tale, but Ernst has taken certain liberties. He adds a lake to this “desert” and gives little prospect for the saint to emerge succesfully from this torment. The viewer’s eye is ultimately drawn to the saint’s face which expresses a distinct amount of horror through widely startled eyes and a mouth gaping in what must be a scream. It seems unlikely that God will show him the light. Has Ernst changed the outcome of this story and allowed St. Anthony to succumb to temptation, or has the artist simply shown what little hope was present for the monk? Ernst may have related to his hopelessness, considering the artist’s own tumultous past.

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2 comments on “For the Love of the ‘Schland Part Three: The Surreal World of Max Ernst

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