Max Ernst may be a common name with museum-goers, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art believes American audiences are unfamiliar with the Surrealist superstars diverse oeuvre.
The museum hopes to rectify this with "Max Ernst: A Retrospective," the first major exhibition on the German-born artist in the United States for more than 30 years.
Opening today, the exhibition follows Ernsts stylistically and geographically itinerant career, from his most renowned surrealist paintings to his explorations of frottage (rubbings) and literary works.
"While the importance of Max Ernst in the history of Dada and Surrealism has been recognized worldwide, the spectrum of Ernsts work along with its inventiveness has been less well-known in the United States in recent years," said Met director Philippe de Montebello. "[The] exhibition should redress this."
The show begins with Ernsts early Surrealist paintings from the 1920s, when the WWI veteran led the Dada movement in Cologne, Germany, and later joined forces with Andre Breton in Paris. These pieces are Ernsts's most famous work: Surrealist essentials such as Celebes (1921), Ernsts sinister part-elephant, part-machine painting, and Ubu Imperator (1923), which depicts an anthropomorphous top with hands dancing in a bare desert setting.
Loaded with symbols like doves and his mythical "LopLop" bird, Ernsts works vacillate between feelings of estrangement and enchantment. One notable exception on display, however, is Fireside Angel (1937), one of his few explicitly political canvases. Sub-titled The Triumph of Surrealism, it shows a bird-like monster blind with rage that serves to symbolize the wave of fascism gripping Europe.
"The Fireside Angel is a picture I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain," Ernst once said about the work. "This is, of course, an ironical title for a kind of clumsy oaf which destroys everything that gets in the way. That was my impression in those days of the things that might happen in the world. And I was right."
Beyond Ernsts greatest hits, the Metropolitan exhibition focuses on his subsequent forays into free association writing and the techniques of frottage (making a rubbing from a textured surface), grattage (scratching away at the surface of a painting) and decalcomania (altering a wet painting by pressing a second surface against it and pulling away).
Dark forests and ruined cities abound in the paintings, while his novels are enigmatic collages of Victorian engravings and clips from mail-order catalogues, popular fiction and scientific documents. Using the quintessential Surrealist technique of free association, his novels conjure often disturbing images, including his influential La Femme 100 Tetes (which can be read as "The Headless Woman").
Ending with his American work (Ernst fled Europe in 1941 after being twice arrested by the French authorities and the Gestapo), the exhibition finishes with the artists lesser-seen sculptures and paintings of exile.