Label it surrealism, or Dada, or nihilism, or just plain craziness, but something emerged in Europe from the wreckage of the First World War that was to capture the minds of a generation of artists coming of age in the jazz era. It was less an idea than a rumor: that reason was dead but one could stay alive by retreating into the world of dream and fantasy; that art was dead but a new art could be created that would startle its viewers into new awareness by exposing them to images dredged up from the subconscious; and that, if you listened carefully, you could learn more about art and living from schizophrenic babble, children’s doodles and aboriginal fetish-objects than from all the museums and libraries in Europe. Most of the artists who believed the rumor have passed into shadows where only art historians wander. But of those whose works and reputations survived the death of the rumor at the outbreak of the Second World War— Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Paul Kleefew have left a legacy as interesting as that of Max Ernst, a major sampling of whose works is now on view, for the
first time in Canada, at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.
The Glenbow exhibition (assembled by Curator of Art Jeff Spalding from the private collection of Ernst’s son and daughter-in-law, Jimmy and Dallas Ernst) is an irresistible celebration of Ernst’s creative accomplishments; wherever you turn there is one more visionary gateway into his peculiar universe. A 1909 painting entitled Landscape With Sun—done when Ernst was just 18 but already a veteran of university studies in abnormal psychology— depicts a sun that belongs to another, more hostile solar system and a landscape that appears to belong to a planet freshly hurled from the crucible of creation. Natural History, a 1926 portfolio of 34 drawings done by rubbing graphite on paper held down upon deeply grooved wood, could be a botanical guide to first life on that distant world. And perhaps Ernst’s 1931 collage Loplop is a picture of a messenger from it. “In 1930,” he wrote, “I was visited
nearly every day by the superior of the birds, Loplop, my private phantom ...” But the fabulous Loplop gives way, in 1934, to a fresco-like, classical oil painting, The Garden of Hesperides—a glimpse into another of the exotic worlds Ernst visited in the rocketship of his imagination.
Despite these flights, however, he kept one foot planted firmly on earth. In 1916, the flamboyant, nihilistic Dada movement was born in Zurich and Ernst was in the thick of things—especially in Cologne, where he edited and wrote for Dada magazines. In 1921, his collages were shown in Paris; and before the golden age of the avant-garde was ended by the Depression and Hitler, he had married twice, moved in and out of several artistic media, participated in the founding of the surrealist movement and visited Indochina, remaining throughout a seminal thinker and worker. But in the 1930s, the world that he and his generation had tried to hold at bay came crushing in upon him. The Nazis blacklisted him in 1932, but far worse was his detention, first by the French as an enemy alien and later by
the Germans after the invasion of France. (At one point he was confined to an insane asylum.)
In 1941, Ernst’s nightmare came to an end after his flight to the United States (aided by his son, Jimmy, and North American friends). The period from 1941 until his death in 1976 was Ernst’s second long season of creative work, and from it come the most stunning works in the Glenbow exhibition: the sculptures, which surpass all of the earlier works on view. These smallish pieces in plaster, silver, bronze and wood jauntily ignore the sternly reductivist dogmas of modern sculpture. There is the clown quick-changing into a sinister imp in the marvelous plaster work, Moon Mad (1944). There are the odd leers and bewitching stares of the gargoyles Ernst crafted in concrete on the cinder-block walls of his Arizona home, sculptures whose expressions could have been borrowed from the walls of a medieval cathedral or the masks of a primitive tribe. The same ambiguity permeates the centrepiece of the Glenbow show: Capricorn, a group of awesome concrete figures made in 1948 on the grounds of the Arizona house, one a long-boned, long-necked and alert female, the other a regal horned creature whose body forms a throne. Though fragmentary and much deteriorated, Capricorn can
still alternately menace and delight. Like all the sculptures, it inhabits that twilight border zone between waking and dreaming, between the wild and tame, saved from moving into one
or the other by a powerful irony.
This eerie ambivalence is heightened by a unique feature of the Glenbow exhibition: the juxtaposition of primitive art objects collected by Ernst from the ’40s onward with his original works. Credit for this unusual installation— it’s the sort of startling conjunction the surrealists would have loved—must go to Jeff Spalding who wanted to share with visitors one of his own surprises. “Before I got the checklist of objects from the Ernsts,” Spalding says, “I never knew those primitive artifacts Ernst collected still existed. But there they were, those phenomenal objects. They and the art made a lot of sense together.”
Spalding’s grouping (for example) of Ernst’s wonderful little Moon Mad with two fantastic, horned ceremonial masks from the Ivory Coast makes more than sense. It opens the way past the academic game of which influenced what, into a glimpse of how the modern and primitive sculptures actually relate. For in that mysterious border region, so full of ironies and ambiguities, both Ernst’s sculptures and the artisan’s fabulous craftwork are fellow citizens. Perhaps it is this fact that makes this show seem less like just another exhibit of art—and more like a reunion.
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