I had not planned very far in advance to see Max Ernst’s exhibition at Palazzo Reale; in January, before the sales campaign began, I had a morning off from work and was curious to visit this retrospective.
During the course of my visit, I was able to admire the complex works of the German artist, whose body of work nevertheless needs an in-depth look at the historical and philosophical context in which he lived (I heard a professor who was visiting the exhibition make this very observation), as he is still little known by the general public and may need to be studied in relation to other disciplines as well.
The retrospective traces the entire career of Max Ernst, who is also remembered as one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century. He was one of the most cited and controversial artists of his time and his masterpieces are scattered in numerous museums and private collections around the world, mainly in Europe and the United States. The one at Palazzo Reale is the first retrospective about Max Ernst ever staged in Italy; many of the works at the museum have not been viewable for numerous decades, including a series of books and documents collected by the artist that are on display for the very first time.
Both his life and his artistic body of work represent a unique journey through the 20th century, one of the most relevant centuries in history in terms of facts and currents of thought. A century which to this day appears both near and far, but whose major events still influence our lives and our times. The exhibition opens with one of Max Ernst’s most important works, Oedipus Rex (1922), which turned a century old just last year and evidences how fascinated the artist was with both Greek myth and Freudian psychoanalysis.
Born in Brühl, Germany, in 1891, Max Ernst started drawing and painting during his childhood (following in the footsteps of his father Philipp); he was self-taught and did not go to art school but was very interested in study and research. He attended the University of Bonn, where he studied classical philology, psychology, philosophy and art history. His works of the 1910s were characterized by a variety of styles; his experiments drew on Impressionism, Futurism, Pointillism, Cubism and Expressionism. He was influenced by Giorgio De Chirico’s work, which he discovered through a magazine, and this led him to create a series of lithographs entitled FIAT MODES pereat ars (Let There Be Fashion, Down With Art); the series features stages, wooden floors, theatre sets and mannequins. These worlds are staged in “metaphysical painting” and integrated with writing. In the painting titled Justicia/Butcher’s Shop from 1919 he substitutes the ancient iconography of Justice with his new version, creating a theatrical setting and playing with the idea of liberating vision. Max Ernst extended his research to some unconventional methods of making art; he utilized preexisting printing plates that he contextualized through drawings or new combinations, expanding their meaning. He overpainted the illustrations in school textbooks on mathematics, anthropology, botany, mineralogy, or reworked the linear structures of cut-out paper figures.
In 1922, publications featuring his woodcut collages started to appear. The Misfortunes of the Immortals contains 20 texts, written jointly by Paul Éluard and Max Ernst in a constant reciprocal exchange, illustrated by 20 collages. One of the editions, watercolored by Ernst himself, is entirely displayed at the museum for the first time.
When the artist entered Paris illegally in 1922, he moved into the house of Paul Éluard, painting murals on two floors and transforming the attic into his own studio. He devoted much work to the poet’s daughter’s room; the frieze below the ceiling presents a constant interplay of thematic variations. This exhibition is the first opportunity for the public to view an integrated reconstruction of the frescoed Eaubonne house, especially some of the friezes from Cécile Éluard’s bedroom, set up according to their original layout and dimensions, a series of wonderful visionary worlds.
In the 1920s, nature seen as mother and source of endless possibilities became the protagonist of many works by Max Ernst. He invented the frottage technique; by rubbing a pencil over a sheet of paper on the graining of wooden floorboards, he conjured an extraordinary fauna of biomorphic creatures resembling the imprints of ancient fossils, as can be seen in the brilliant encyclopedic compendium from 1926 titled Natural History. The artist’s interest in the natural sciences was accompanied by a fascination with alchemy and hermeticism, which aimed to reunite the human being with the forces of the cosmos (many ancient theories consider the combinations of air, water, earth and fire as the origin of creation). The four elements reappear constantly in the history of science, art and alchemy and the exhibition adopts them to organize the works on the subject of nature from different stages. All four elements coexist in the enchanted garden of A Fabric of Lies, an immense oil on canvas painted by Ernst in 1959. This work oscillates between two poles; outer world and inner imagination, fact and fable, truth and poetry. Quantifiable concrete reality is set against a weave of invented elements. The pictorial technique that graphically reduces faces and figures can only be found in his work from 1946; the tendency to simplify was consolidated from the end of the 1950s.
In the mid 1930s Max Ernst introduced a wild nature, similar to a jungle, in his work and many titles allude to this theme, such as Antipodes of Landscape. The chromatic solutions he adopts to paint the sky not only suggest dawn but also nightfall, evoking the mood of threshold consciousness, which according to the Surrealists stimulated free thought that knew no bounds. The external landscape corresponds to the internal dimension, like during the German Romanticism. The Renaissance was also a great point of reference in Ernst’s research. The methodological foundations of his art were based on gradually interpreting the inner world and conceiving indirect working techniques that subverted and extended the usual ones. He created all the catalogues and invitations for his exhibitions and from 1950 there was an exponential growth in his graphic production (over 500 works being published individually in about 80 volumes, magazines and portfolios).
Max Ernst interweaves past, present and future in amazing creations that stem from his profound culture and boundless creative imagination. Memory becomes an essential antidote to the loss of identity but also a tool for the redemption of major figures who have contributed to humanity’s progress and risk being forgotten. This is where the history of culture becomes a source of inspiration for the artist.
The Project for a Monument to Leonardo Da Vinci (1957) is dedicated to the Italian genius, painted in an iridescent, kaleidoscopic style which is typical of the 1950s.
In Dream and Revolution (1945-46), Ernst overlays references to the French Revolution, staging a mysterious dialogue between a monstrous creature and a Jacobin/painter maneuvering military lances that are the poles from an artist’s studio.
Pietà or Revolution by Night is one of the most celebrated allusions to the Pietà iconography of the 20th century, as well as being an essential reference for the development of Surrealist principles connected with inner vision and imagination in the creation of art. The figures dominating this work represent the three artistic disciplines of painting, sculpture and drawing. The theme of the piece is ultimately Surrealist art inspired by De Chirico.
Max Ernst’s masterpiece from 1937 titled The Angel of Hearth and Home foreshadowed the outbreak of World War II. It was very emotional to see this work in person, as it is incredibly impressive; it draws inspiration from various models like Grünewald’s Temptation of St. Anthony. While commenting on his own work, Ernst stated: “The Angel of Hearth and Home is a painting I made after the fall of the Republicans in Spain. The title is of course ironic, due to the species of wader that destroys and annihilates everything in its path. This was my impression of what the world was heading for, and I was right.” The painting is among the historical pictures that anticipate World War II and the rise of Hitler, foreshadowing a world that no longer has anything to do with culture and humanity, as evidenced by the absence of human presence in a barren landscape animated only by monstrous creatures.
Max Ernst described the starry sky as “a touchstone of keen vision” in the Dada self-presentation he published in 1921. The year before, images of stars had begun to appear in his work. The infinity of the cosmos harmonizes with the free visions of the artist’s images, like in the 1969 painting Birth of a Galaxy, whose vibrancy suggests the birth of new constellations of stars.
Cryptographs had already started appearing in his artistic universe and were described by Ernst as “secret writings which held no secrets for those who had eyes for seeing and signs for interpreting.” The blocks and columns in Maximiliana, one of the most important artist books of the 20th century – stand out among Ernst’s graphic works.
In the 1965 painting titled The World of the Naïve, Ernst constructed a layered calligraphic space where he harmonized perspectives and framed planets, nebulae and figures. The viewer’s gaze shifts constantly between micro and macrocosm, between image and writing. This way Max Ernst connects earthly space and cosmic infinity and offers a new, innovative take on the Surrealist reconciliation of opposites.
Although at times some of his works are difficult to interpret because they presuppose a deeper study of the subject matter, the Max Ernst retrospective organized by Palazzo Reale is a great opportunity to reflect on certain themes by looking at the artist’s immense work through the decades, including many artistic works that had never before been revealed to the public. His work characterizes 70 years of 20th-century history, presenting the artist as a humanist in a neo-Renaissance sense and inviting the public to engage with enigmatic themes and symbols that go beyond mere painting. If you are in Milan during the month of February and want to spend a couple of hours surrounded by the kind of art that makes you think and reflect on a variety of themes, I highly recommend you this exhibition.
Max Ernst can be visited at Palazzo Reale in Milan until February 26, 2023.
Thank you to Palazzo Reale and La Rinascente for providing me with the opportunity to visit this great exhibition. It is good to spend time in contact with art, especially if it leads you to reflect and totally immerse yourself in an artist’s vision. The Max Ernst exhibition is so immense that it was not possible for me to include all the art I have seen. I have extracted the meaning behind his works from the many captions that introduce them.
All pictures are my own.
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