A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday

The Blessed Virgin Chastising The Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses-Max Ernst 1926
Max Ernst is the complete Surrealist artist. With Johannes Baargeld he formed Cologne Dada and organized the infamous 1920 Cologne Dada Fair which had visitors enter the exhibition via the urinals of a beer hall, where they were then greeted by a girl wearing a communion dress reciting pornographic poetry. Inside they were invited to destroy the artworks on display with an axe that Ernst had thoughtfully provided.. Ernst was a key figure in the ‘mouvement flou’, the transitional period between Dada and Surrealism. Under the banner of Surrealism Ernst experimented with photo-montage, collage, collage novels; various automatism techniques including decalcomania, frottage and grattage. His visionary figurative paintings set the benchmark for the realistic depiction of dream and hallucinatory states that was to figure so prominently in the movement.

The Blessed Virgin Chastising The Infant Jesus Before Three Witness from 1926 was a considerable success de scandale when first exhibited. The outraged Bishop of Cologne promptly closed down the exhibition. He was right to detect more than a whiff of blasphemy. Ernst  is implying that the Infant Jesus wasn’t perfect and just like any other child his behaviour could result in a severe punishment. The Virgin maintains her halo while administering the spanking yet the Infant’s crown has dropped to the ground. And all the while Paul Eluard, Andre Breton and the artist pruriently look on.

66 thoughts on “A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday

  1. I am such a fan of this painting, as I have mentioned previously. I do see its origins a bit differently as, to my eye, it appears to have been influenced by deChirico (don’t laugh!). I refer to that infamous Portrait of Apollinaire …. the bust with sunglasses, the mystery figure looming in the background and its angular walls – three areas of interest that together present some form of context. Here, I see three surrealists whispering, we cannot know what their thoughts are about what they witness in an alley out of public view. Considering the state of Europe at the time, and I think we can all agree that the horrors of WWI called into question whether God would permit such atrocities …. some would say, surely not….others might deny his existence…so the question is posed as we see in this piece….would Mary have spanked Jesus? It seems that Breton was anxious to claim that if a piece could create a stir, that he would claim it was surreal…but I don’t see it in this piece. It makes a direct statement/question that is easily interpreted. Am I wrong?

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    1. De Chirico was definitely a big influence…Ernst was very big on blasphemy… Witness His Freudian homo-erotic Pieta… I don’t think our views conflict that much and you are right.


  2. Alex, so glad you chose this. I first saw this painting as a cover for a psychology book (no surprise!) and was smitten. I looked it up when the internet began (yes, that’s how long ago it was!) and found the artist, but of all his work this one strikes home the most. I suppose it’s the daring and the simplicity at the same time, the almost cubist style of abstract and realistic joining hands, and also it reminds me of a lot of latino artwork. Some would say it’s merely shock art or blasphemy but i think that’s reducing it to its simplest interpretation. I believe as you say, there is an erotica there and a huge influence from psychology and I find that fascinating. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks for the detailed comments Feather. Ernst knew his Freud very well and a lot of paintings from this period reference psychoanalysis. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series on Ernst.

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  3. Hmm. Strange…I already commented on this….and ‘liked’ this post. Yet, my comment is not here…and the little star is not illuminated. I shall try one more time:

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  4. It’s a very disturbing painting on so many levels. Courageous, too. I love the walls, sky, and spaces … also the fallen halo. There are some enlightening comments below the line too. Thank you. Great work, as usual.

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      1. Thank you I hope you enjoy… these were written a year ago I am posting them because they are buried in the archives and because I want to concentrate on my novel that I am too lazy to write

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      2. That’s because you’re a songbird at heart and you flip from branch to branch and word to word and flower to flower and idea to idea. There’s nothing wrong with that: but the novel will take a lot longer to write!

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  5. You’ve been to Cologne, if I recall correctly. And I assume you’ve seen this live and in person? Did you ever get over to The Tate to see Paul Nash? It finishes at the end of the month, so there’s still time.

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  6. Just…wow. Lots to process here. I think it’s quite realist to think Jesus as an infant/child would be just like the rest of us…so there is realism in his surrealism, then. 😉 But, no doubt scandalous to many believers, I’m sure. It makes me laugh, not at the act that is happening, because I’m not a believer in corporal punishment, but because it’s almost a relief to see normality in something that so many want to keep locked in a kind of chaste sanctity that denies truth. I don’t know if any of that made sense…

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    1. You are right on the money here, the whole idea is to show a domestic reality that Jesus must have encountered as a baby (as they certainly did believe in corporeal punishment back in the back, spare the rod, spoil the child).it is a marvellous thought provoking painting. Thanks for the lengthly comment Em.

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