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Surreal Genius: Max Ernst

The Menil showcases his singular vision and technique

The works of Max Ernst (1891-1976) are nothing new to fans of surrealist art, or for that matter, Menil Collection visitors. The museum has displayed the artist's work, both in its permanent surrealism exhibit and subsequent exhibitions, to demonstrate universal themes in modern and primitive art. At the Menil, though, it seems I've only seen Ernst's work in context with the overall design of the collection. But in its new exhibit, "Max Ernst in the Garden of Nymph Ancolie," the Menil is offering a look at Ernst himself, largely free of the Menil "filter." In fact, the show's central work is symbolic of Ernst's singular vision and technique.

Ernst was a champion of automatism, a set of processes that sidestepped conscious and rational thought, allowing chance and mystery to influence his imagery. It particularly suited him as a surrealist. Frottage, a technique Ernst developed in 1925, involved rubbing a pencil over a surface that had been pressed against another textured surface or object. The pattern or image that emerged dictated how Ernst approached the particular work. Histoire Naturelle, a series of works on paper, is displayed upon entrance to the exhibit, and it's a great introduction to the overall trajectory of Ernst's output. Animal, insect and plant forms materialize out of the strange, unrecognizable textures.

Applying frottage to painting, Ernst quickly adapted the process into grattage, in which a painting's surface is scraped while pressing it against another surface. It allowed Ernst to reveal texture and image within a painting, rather than applying it. Surrealism is largely about unconscious revelation, and grattage is perfectly fitted to that axiom. In The Fragrant Forest, Ernst depicted a dark canopy of trees, violently windblown. Using grattage, Ernst carved out the trees' massive trunks, some of which bear a grid-like bark texture, evoking factory-made organisms. A giant circle menacingly hovers in the sky.

The most intriguing paintings on display, besides the title piece, utilize decalcomania. This third automatist process entails pressing paint between two surfaces and then removing the top layer, revealing irregular patterns and blotches. In The Stolen Mirror (1941), a surreal ancient Greek or Roman scene, statues of women have deteriorated and been covered in a kind of growth; it could be plant matter, animal matter or — what it looks most like — coral. Animal shapes and ­animal-human hybrid forms emerge from the encrusted material. In the background, pyramids, ruined columns and obelisks dot the landscape. One of the statues, a woman wielding a spear, is nearly engulfed by the stuff. Marlene (1940-41) is another painting in this vein. Except here, the female figure appears to be clothed by the mysterious matter. A shoulder and arm are entirely sleeved in it, and her hair has been made up with the bizarre material in a tall, 18th-century style. Her breasts are bare, adding a requisite erotic element. The decalcomania technique applied to the column in the background resembles carved glyphs. The process is noted for lending an apocalyptic narrative to the images. John Russell, Ernst's biographer (as quoted by assistant curator Clare Elliott in the show's museum notes) observed, "It would not suit every subject, but for a world in the process of self-­destruction it was exactly right."

If The Fragrant Forest implies a coming doom, Frogs Don't Sing Red (1956) suggests the apex of destruction in its liberal use of decalcomania — a blood-red wall of abstract texture and a moonlit sky peeking through a crack. It's as if the forest of the past has been petrified in disease.

Of course, these themes didn't emerge from nowhere. Ernst was reacting to the feelings of paranoia and unease in pre-WWII Germany, where he was already aware of the persecution against artists. Even the wall mural he created for a Zurich nightclub, Petals and Garden of Nymph Ancolie, suggests an ambiguous state of metamorphosis, unsure of any outcome, a state of change.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, the mural is a kind of watery evocation of a leafy-flower-bird-human-insect hybrid. The colorful plant forms in vibrant green, red and yellow float against a ghostly blueprint of its weird metamorphosed form. It's interesting to think it was commissioned for a dancing club, and that couples once considered it as they tangoed and waltzed past it. In fact, there's something inherently musical and dance-like about it — the contorted human arms and lunging leg.

Also on display are photographs of Ernst installing the mural in 1934 and an interior view of the nightclub (called the Dancing Mascotte). There are three letters Ernst wrote to John and Dominique de Menil, but I wish the museum had provided translations (they're written in French).

And the exhibit is peppered with Ernst's sculpture as well, which is abstract, amorphous, and most reminiscent of the collection's African holdings. But the real stars here are the paintings, which throb with uncertainty, transformation and revolution — certainly a fitting exhibit for the here and now.

 
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