There are fewer paintings that fully convey the peculiar quality of dreams. The clever incorporation of painted wood effects further enhances the uncanny atmosphere.
An open gate invites us in. Against a backdrop of De Chirico-esqe classical ruins and under a cloudless summer sky that is somehow too vast we see a young girl brandishing a knife to see off a nightingale, meanwhile her companion has fallen into a swoon. Dwarfing the entire landscape is a wooden shed where a strange faceless figure is clutching another young girl while reaching for the knob attached to the picture frame.
Ernst said that during a fevered hallucination the wood grain panelling took on “successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.”
On seeing this imaginary group portrait in Cologne recently I was struck immediately by the self portrait of Ernst, who is number 4 in the painting’s key and is sitting on Dosteyevsky’s (number 6) knee. Although Ernst is left of centre and has no special prominence in the composition the striking features, luminescent hair and pale skin draw your attention. Perhaps this explains the fascination that Ernst exercised over a number of beautiful, talented women throughout his life, including number 16 in the painting, Gala Eluard (late to become Gala Dali). For 1924 to 1927 Ernst was to be involved in a menage-a-trois with Gala and her husband, Paul Eluard, the poet responsible for the unforgettable Surrealist poem ‘The World Is Blue As An Orange’. Eluard is also represented in the painting, number 9 in the key, standing next to Raphael.
Atop a craggy cliff, under snowy peaks during a solar eclipse (signifying revolutionary change in art, politics and society) the members of the mouvement flou and their artistic forebearers gather. Andre Breton (number 13) wearing a red magician’s cape and touching the apparition in the sky is clearly the leader of the group and therefore assumes the role of psycho-pomp guiding his followers through the previously uncharted realm of the unconscious, where they will emerge from to create a new reality, the SUR-REALITY.
‘On the first of August M.E died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918’ was how Max Ernst referred to his time in the army during the WW1. Hitler’s rise in Germany and the start of WW2, which led to several detentions and internments (see my post Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards) must have seemed to Ernst like he had died for a second time.
Out of the traumatic experiences of internment, flight and exile Ernst produced arguably the masterpiece of pictorial automatism Europe After The Rain II. Using the technique pioneered by Oscar Dominguez (see Chance Encounters 1), decalcomania, Ernst created a haunting post apocalyptic landscape with sinister petrified (yet seemingly alive, or on verge of becoming so) mineral formations. A helmeted bird headed figure menaces a woman in a baroque version of Edwardian dress lost in this inimical, alien world. A chilling vision of the future if we persist in our never-ending folly.
HE 2nd of April (1891) at 9:15 a.m. Max Ernst had his first contact with the sensible world, when he came out of the egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest and which the bird had brooded for seven years. Some Data on the Youth of M.E , As Told by Himself.1942
Ernst had a talent for self-mythologising as the above quotes shows. At various times he was Dadamax or Loplop, the Superior of the Birds. His work retains to a remarkable degree a sense of mystery, we feel like we are on the verge of understanding yet we pause and begin to doubt; the answer to the enigma has escaped us and remains as elusive as ever.
Monday’s Ernst, the 1923’s Of This Men Shall Know Nothing (Ernst had a talent for titles) is a excellent example of the cryptic nature of Ernst’s art. Is it a pictorial representation of a Freudian case study, an illustration of alchemical and esoteric doctrine, or a prophetic declaration of the coming of Surrealism? The inscription on the back of painting, ‘This painting is curious because of its symmetry. The two sexes balance one another.’ would seem to point to esotericism, as one of the key tenets of the occult world-view is the reconciliation of opposites; Sun and Moon, Day and Night, Male and Female. Yet the partial eclipse where the moon seems to be gaining ascendancy could signify the rise of Surrealism and the reclamation of the rights of the unconscious and irrationality. Loplop, the Superior of the Birds, sings the answer to the riddle, but although we admire the beauty of the song, remain none the wiser.
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.
Erwin Blumenfeld was one of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the 20th Century, renowned for his vivid and innovative colour photography that graced the cover of Vogue more times than any other photographer before or since. He was also a member of the German avant-garde, a close friend of the savage Berlin Dadaist Georg Grosz (see Eclipse of the Sun) whose techniques of photo-montage and collage he used throughout his career. His discovery of Man Ray shaped his earlier black and white nude photography leading Blumenfeld to experiment with solarisation and double exposure.
With Hitler’s rise to power, Blumenfeld, a Jew, moved to Paris in 1936 where he was discovered by Cecil Beaton who got him a job at French Vogue, however he was soon on the move again with the Nazi invasion of France, this time to America. In the United States he continued his connection with Vogue which allowed him to pursue his lifelong obsession with photographing beautiful women away from the genocidal horror of a war-torn Europe. It has been remarked that Blumenfeld found shame thrilling and he certainly instilled that sense of illicit eroticism into his images.
Robert Desnos was in many ways the archetypal surrealist spirit. Involved in Paris Dada he was in the literary vanguard of Surrealism and possessed an extra-ordinary talent for automatic writing during the Trance Period, rivalled only by Rene Crevel. Desnos, like many others, fell out with Andre Breton and joined the group centred around Georges Bataille and his magazine Documents and he was one of the signers of the anti-Breton polemic Un Cadavre.
During WWII Desnos was an active member of the French Resistance and he was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Theresienstadt where he would die a few weeks after the camp’s liberation from typhoid.
I Have So Often Dreamed Of You
I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal.
Is it still time enough to reach that living body and to kiss
on that mouth the birth of the voice so dear to me?
I have so often dreamed of you that my arms used as they are
to meet on my breast in embracing your shadow would
perhaps not fit the contour of your body.
And, before the real appearance of what has haunted and ruled
me for days and years, I might become only a shadow.
Oh the weighing of sentiment,
I have so often dreamed of you that there is probably no time
now to waken. I sleep standing, my body exposed to all the
appearances of life and love and you, who alone still
matter to me, I could less easily touch your forehead and
your lips than the first lips and the first forehead I
might meet by chance.
I have so often dreamed of you, walked, spoken, slept with your
phantom that perhaps I can be nothing any longer than a
phantom among phantoms and a hundred times more shadow
than the shadow which walks and will walk joyously over
the sundial of your life.
In 1922 Rene Crevel told his friend and mentor Andre Breton about a visit he had made to a Spiritualist seance. It was the time of the mouvementflou, the increasingly nihilistic Dada had negated itself out of existence and Surrealism was yet to come into being. Breton was intrigued and arranged an event with his friends. The results were startling; and this was the beginning of the Period of the Sleeping Fits. Crevel and Robert Desnos (see I Have So Often Dreamed Of You) were particularly susceptible to falling into the trance state and answering questions that was put to them by the group, sometimes with unnerving effect. Each day they would spend longer in a trance, Desnos even had the ability to write while asleep. Both Crevel and Desnos began to rapidly lose weight and Desnos became convinced that he was possessed by Rrose Selavy, Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, even though he had never met Duchamp. Events began to spiral out of control and the experiment with trance states was abandoned completely when Crevel led a group suicide attempt.
Desnos loved to sleep (most photographs show him asleep) and his poetry vividly evokes that universal yet nebulous state Below is his 1926 poem SleepSpaces, translation by Mary Ann Caws.
In the night there are naturally the seven marvels of the world and greatness and the tragic and enchantment.
Confusedly, forests mingle with legendary creatures hidden in the thickets.
You are there.
In the night there is the nightwalker’s step and the murderer’s and the policeman’s and the streetlight and the ragman’s lantern.
You are there.
In the night pass trains and ships and the mirage of countries where it is daylight. The last breaths of twilight and the first shivers of dawn.
You are there.
A tune on the piano, a cry.
A door slams,
And not just beings and things and material noises.
But still myself chasing myself or going on beyond.
You are there, immolated one, you for whom I wait.
Sometimes strange figures are born at the instant of sleep and disappear.
When I close my eyes, phosphorescent blooms appear and fade and are reborn like carnal fireworks.
Unknown countries I traverse with creatures for company.
You are there most probably, oh beautiful discreet spy.
And the palpable soul of the reaches.
And the perfumes of the sky and the stars and the cock’s crow from two thousand years ago and the peacock’s scream in the parks aflame and kisses.
Handshakes sinister in a sickly light and axles screeching on hypnotic roads.
You are most probably there, whom I do not know, whom on the contrary I know.
But who, present in my dreams, insist on being sensed there without appearing.
You who remain out of reach in reality and in dream.
You who belong to me by my will to possess you in illusion but whose face approaches mine if my eyes are closed to dream as well as to reality.
You in spite of an easy rhetoric where the waves die on the beaches, where the crow flies in ruined factories, where wood rots cracking under a leaden sky.
You who are at the depths of my dreams, arousing my mind full of metamorphoses and leaving me your glove when I kiss your hand.
In the night there are stars and the tenebral motion of the sea, rivers, forests, towns, grass, the lungs of millions and millions of being.
In the night there are the marvels of the world.
In the night there are no guardian angels but there is sleep.
In the night you are there.
In the day also.
The technique of photo-montage was pioneered by Berlin Dada, namely Hannah Hoch, Georg Grosz and John Heartfield. Heartfield is especially notable for his politicised satires of Hitler and National Socialism that appeared on the cover of AIZ, a leading and best-selling socialist newspaper of the early 1930’s.
Hurrah, the butter is all gone parodies the aesthetics of Nazi propaganda. Showing a typical German family gnawing on various iron implements, including a bicycle and an axe while the dog licks a gigantic nut and bolt. A portrait of Hitler is in pride of place and the walls are emblazoned with swastikas. The accompanying text refers to a speech delivered by Hermann Goring during a food shortage: “Hurrah, the butter is all gone!” Goring said in one Hamburg address: “Iron ore has made the Reich strong. Butter and dripping have, at most, made the people fat.”
A leading Berlin Dadaist (and therefore a card-carrying member of the Communist Psrty) and one of the most notable of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) artists, Georg Grosz’s satirical caricatures remain unsurpassed for their chilling clarity of vision and unflinching brutality of execution.
Portraying the Weimar Republic as a society mired in decadence and corruption, Grosz’s paintings and drawings are populated by prostitutes, gamblers, perverted millionaires, bloated generals and fat-cat bankers. In 1926’s Eclipse of the Sun the dollar has obscured the sun, however the over-decorated general is receiving whispered advise from the top-hatted banker while the ‘suits’ complete the necessary paperwork so no need to worry. A blinkered donkey is advancing along a gangplank towards a shredder stuffed with money (a probable reference to the hyper-inflation that Germany was experiencing, where it was cheaper to burn money for fuel than to buy firewood). Down below people are trapped next to skeletons. Perhaps there is a need to worry after all.