When Max Ernst joined the German army to serve in World War I he felt like his life had ended, writing later that "Max Ernst died the 1st of August, 1914." Born April 2, 1891, Ernst’s rebirth as an artist took place in the wake of the Great War as the madness of a generation’s self-destruction called for the Dadaism and Surrealism that flourished where reason failed. In Pietà or Revolution by Night (above, from 1923), Ernst addresses his father issues by mimicking the familiar image of the pieta, replacing the Virgin Mary with his cold, distant father and Christ with himself as cold, hard marble. A figure resembling Sigmund Freud lurks in the background just to clear up any doubts that a psychodrama’s playing out here.
Ernst learned from every artist he encountered in his travels, from Paul Klee to Giorgio de Chirico. The Elephant Celebes (above, from 1921) pays homage to de Chirico in creating a monstrous machine-elephant set to rumble down the ominous streets of an unpopulated de Chirico town. The Elephant Celebes also confounds nature and technology in a way that anyone intimately familiar with the mechanized murder of World War I would still have nightmares about. Ernst’s Elephant could easily share a surrealist zoo habitat with the bizarre creations of Salvador Dali.
When fascism began to spread across Europe in the run-up to World War II, Ernst responded with Une Semaine de Bonté (one image from which appears above, from 1934), a series of collages made from cutting apart Victorian Era magazines and books and building bizarre images set in deceivingly tranquil, homey situations. Joseph Cornell saw these images and borrowed the technique and the spirit of Ernst for many of his own “boxes.” Ernst himself never found a truly stable home. He left his lover, the artist Leonora Carrington, behind when he fled France after the German occupation of World War II. Once in America, he wed art patron Peggy Guggenheim, only to divorce her and marry fellow surrealist Dorothea Tanning in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner—perhaps the only double wedding in art history. Ernst’s work puzzles me, but in a good way. The instability of his life and his artistic vision match the instability of the world crumbling around him. In his second life, the surreal had truly become the real.