Key Aspects of Surrealism Inaugurated by Max Ernst

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Key Aspects of Surrealism Inaugurated by Max Ernst

Max Ernst, an inventive artist and one of the pioneers of the Surrealist movement, was able to project the ideas of Surrealism to his audience in a very efficient manner. Surrealism is a discipline, which allows one to think like a child and create art that brings you to a dream-like state. Ernst was able to accomplish this by creating images one can only imagine seeing in a dream, such as his ‘Angel of Heart and Home’ series. As well as by piecing things together which would not typically be put together (collages), such as his Oedipus Rex. Ernst’s work, Oedipus Rex(1922) and L’ange du Foyer(1937) are crucial works of art for the Surrealist movement and inaugurated many of the important characteristics associated with Surrealist art. Surrealism is a cultural movement and artistic style that emerged in 1924 in the hands of Andre Breton.

Surrealism style uses visual imagery from the subconscious mind to create art without the intention of logical comprehensibility. Breton defines Surrealism as a “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern". It is meant to bring the viewer to a dream-like state, where a sense of freedom can be achieved, as it would in childhood. Breton said that “the mind which plunges into Surrealism relives with glowing excitement the best part of its childhood…[it is] childhood where everything nevertheless conspires to bring about the effective, risk-free possession of oneself”. He says that it is Surrealism that gives you a second chance to be like a child, it is another opportunity. Although Surrealism, in a sense, emerged from Dada, the two practices are different in many ways. Dada took an anti-art stance, avoiding repetition and therefore the creation of a style. Although it did not seek a common style, Surrealism, however, had none of the nihilism of the earlier movement but was concerned with a redefinition of painting, with transgression rather than prescription. Crevel describes Surrealism beautifully as being “for the mind a truly magnificent and almost unhoped-for victory, to possess [a] new liberty, [a] leaping of the imagination […] smashing the bars of reason’s cage, and bird that it is, obedient to the voice of the wind”.

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For Ernst, “the fundamental opposition between meditation and action coincides with the fundamental separation between the outer and inner worlds”. It is here, Ernst believes, that the universal significance of Surrealism lies, and that no part in life is closed to it. Ernst’s art showcased his fascination with Surrealism through his many great works of art including Oedipus Rex and L’ange du Foyer. Max Ernst Max Ernst was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst is considered to be one of the primary pioneers of the Dada movement and Surrealism. He was born in Bruhl, Germany. In 1909, he enrolled in the University at Bonn to study philosophy but soon abandoned these courses to pursue his interest in art. In 1913 he met Guillaume Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay and traveled to the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France where a gathering of artists from around the globe was taking place. In 1919 he visited Paul Klee and created his first paintings, block prints, and collages, and experimented with mixed media. During World War, I served in the German army, and after the war, filled with new ideas, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, and social activist Alfred Grunwald, formed the Cologne, Germany Dada group. Constantly experimenting, in 1925 he invented frottage, a technique using pencil rubbings of objects. Following the outbreak of World War II, Max Ernst was detained as an enemy alien but with the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry in Marseille, he managed to escape the country with Peggy Guggenheim. They arrived in the United States in 1941.

Living in New York City, along with Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall, fellow avant-garde painters who had fled the war in Europe, Max Ernst helped inspire the use of Abstract expressionism among American painters. Ernst turned away from the idea of the artist as a creator as well as from the myth of ‘artistic talent. ’ For Ernst, the artist is only indirectly responsible for the creation of the work of art: “The old view of ‘talent’ […] has been thrown out, just as the adoration of the hero […] has been thrown out”. A sense of humor permeates his canvases and collages, none more so than in his renditions of natural phenomena. Interested in plants and in their life cycles, he permits his sense of the mythical to prevail. Trees gods, spirits, and fantastic animals are everywhere in his canvases”.

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex was one of Ernst’s first paintings in which he was able to successfully transfer the techniques of combination, assemblage, and collage to large-scale painting. The picture is given the impression of a collage by the use of hard outlines and the dry appearance of the paint. Gimferrer notes that Ernst was able to expound the conception, mechanics, and techniques of collage. His collages were able to sustain the principle of the union of two dissociated situations in the strictly Dadaist or Surrealist manner. This technique seems to stem from Max Ernst and is “applied to the very nucleus of consciousness [and] to the notion of personal identity”. The spatial situation of Oedipus Rex is, to some extent, unclear due to the initial context of the picture. Here objects differing in scale are arranged in a setting indicated by architectonic elements. A device for marking chicks is pierced through a hand extended through a window and through the nut it is holding. The nut, which has been cracked open, resembles an eye, bringing to mind Luis Bunuel’s film Un Chien Andalou. Two birds are to be seen looking out of a hole in the stage in the foreground, prevented from withdrawing their head by palings and length of the string (or halter) tied to the horns of one of them. Bischoff claims, “the desire for forbidden fruit (indicated by the hand which has reached for the nut) and curiosity (for the birds have put their head through the opening in order to see something) are immediately punished”. Schneede, on the other hand, understands Oedipus Rex as being “held in check by a halter […] and by palings. ” He says that “living creatures exist […] in a rigid state of suspended animation [and that] the saw cleaves no trace of cut marks behind”. Moreover, Schneede agrees with Bischoff, in that the cleaved nut resembles an eye, anticipating the opening sequence of Bunuel’s film, Un Chien Andalou.

There are numerous allusions to the Oedipus legend of classical antiquity, says Bischoff, a myth, which has retained its validity throughout the history of mankind, for the motifs of vision, blindness, and piercing, are all present. Although there are many understandings of this work of art, it can still be difficult to understand the meaning of it to the extent the Ernst had intended. For Spies, pictures such as Oedipus Rex compel us to search in vain for some key that might help us to explain them. And that in doing so, we get no closer to the meaning. He goes on to say that “it is important to recognize that even precise knowledge of the sources Ernst made use of for his collages and paintings does not help us understand them, for he cut away and obscured the meaning of the original image in the course of making his own work”. L’ange du Foyer Max Ernst’s L’ange du Foyer is another one of his groundbreaking pieces in which a “gigantic bird-like or dragon-like creature [is] launching into a terrible jump over a plain”. The smaller secondary figure is trying to hold the monster back.

The painting projects a vivid sense of danger and total destructiveness. “The monster’s violent nature is perfectly clear from its menacing claws, its fluttering garments in glowing colors, its expansive gestures, with its raised left hand, making some kind of magical sign, and it’s enraged stomping in front of a low-lying horizon”. The gesture of the outstretched arms is more expansive but does not seem so menacing, inasmuch as it does not threaten to burst the boundaries of the picture. The monster appears not to be acting so much as reacting to something. A number of details that Rewald pointed out are as follows: “On the creatures right foot in the Munich picture is a house slipper – an allusion to the title L’ange du Foyer (Fire Side Angle), whereas in the large canvas it is a horses hoof, suggesting the devil. His right hand, lacking the long claws of the other beast, still has some resemblance to human anatomy. His left arm, by contrast, appears to dissolve into vegetable forms. The fluttering drapery on this arm can be interpreted as an object: it calls to mind a blood-red executioner ax. And the monster’s grimace is hideously repulsive. Thus, terror is not entirely banished from the smaller picture”. Attached to an arm and a leg of the beast in the painting is a small, no less monstrous creature that seems more amphibian. Rewald describes the creature as having a “gaping birds beak and long frog legs,” she says that “it combines irreconcilable elements [of] air and water”. In addition, the obviously female creature exudes a crude eroticism: her thick thighs are spread far apart, exposing a button-like sex organ.

And according to Rewald, it is impossible to overlook her obscene gesture, which has infuriated the trampling beast and caused him to leap so high. Despite the individual differences, says Bischoff, all the themes and subjects of Max Ernst’s work had a political dimension, none more so than his L’ange du Foyer. This painting consisted of three versions, called the ‘Angel of Heart and Home’ series. The ‘Angel of Heart and Home’ is an ironic title, Ernst says, for a kind of “juggernaut, which crushes and destroys all that comes in its path. That was my impression at the time of what would probably happen in the world, and I was right (about WWII)”. The monster is seen as being driven solely by an instinct for power, he represents a variety of governmental, military, and ecclesiastical authorities, crushing and killing everything that stands in his way, especially women. In 1938, Ernst gave the picture, for a time, the title ‘The Triumph of Surrealism,’ “a despairing reference to the fact that the Surrealists with their Communist ideas had been unable to do anything to resist Fascism”. Ernst’s additions to Surrealism Max Ernst, a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism has, through his art, brought us to dream-like state time and time again. Surrealism is meant to bring us to our inner child, and exercise our imaginations. In practicing this discipline, Ernst was able to eliminate the notion of the artist as a creator as well as the idea of ‘artistic talent. ’ Through experimentation and his skillfulness, he was able to deliver us many great works of art, including Oedipus Rex and L’ange du Foyer. Oedipus Rex was the first time Ernst was able to transfer the technique of collage to a large-scale painting, and through this work, he permeated the idea that the desire for the ‘forbidden fruit’ or curiosity is, many times, immediately punished. With L’ange du Foyer, Ernst deliberately made a reference to war, projecting a vivid sense of danger and destructiveness. He was able to bring his ideas on war to a surreal, phantasmagorical state. Oedipus Rex(1922) and L’ange du Foyer(1937) are a couple of the most important additions to the Surrealist movement. Ernst, through these works, was able to establish many significant elements linked to Surrealism including the use of collage and bringing the audience to a dream-like state with his overtly spine-chilling creations.


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  2. Max Ernst: 1891-1976 Beyond Painting. (J. Harrison, Trans. ) Koln, Germany: Taschen. Camfield, W. A. (1993).
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  5. Art in Theory 1900-2000. US: Wiley-Blackwell. Hofmann, W., Schmied, W. & Spies, W. (1973).
  6. Max Ernst, Inside the Sight. Houston, Texas: Institute for the Arts, Rice University. Rewald, S., & Spies, W. (2005).
  7. Max Ernst: A Retrospective. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Schneede, U. M. (1972).
  8. The essential Max Ernst. (R. W. Last, Trans. ) London: Thames and Hudson. Spalding, J. J. (1979).
  9. Max Ernst: from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Ernst. Calgary, Alberta: Glenbow Museum. Spies, W. (2006).
  10. Max Ernst: Life and Work. London: Thames and Hudson. Stern, F. (2009, January).
  11. Surrealism: The Alternate Reality. CPI. Q (Canadian Periodicals).

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Key Aspects of Surrealism Inaugurated by Max Ernst. (2018, Oct 04). Retrieved from

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