“Max Ernst: Dada & the Dawn of Surrealism,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
March 14—May 2, 1993

He “stands as one of the greatest innovative pioneers of this century’s art.” Cézanne? Matisse? Picasso? No: Max Ernst. Hyperbole has always been a stock-in-trade of Dada and Surrealism, and this deliciously preposterous claim by Walter Hopps, the Ernst specialist who helped organize this exhibition of the artist’s early work, reverberates like a Dadaist prank as one picks one’s way through the more than two hundred objects assembled here. Artistically, Ernst (1891-1976) was not nothing. Any larger claim would be trifling with the truth. This exhibition includes the best that the German-born artist accomplished—a handful of paintings and collages from the late Teens that sometimes manage to remind one of Paul Klee —but it also generously represents Ernst at his most tiresome and bombastic.

As is so often the case these days, this exhibition would have been much more effective, and much kinder to its subject, had it been about half or a third the size. The genius of Max Ernst simply cannot support an exhibition of two hundred objects. And yet we must be grateful for small favors: two years ago, an even larger exhibition, marking the centenary of Ernst’s birth and covering the whole of the artist’s long career, traveled around Europe but never came here.

Ernst was a slick draftsman and meticulous technician. He just wasn’t much of an artist. As it happens, a large part of the problem was his attachment to Surrealism. Dada, Surrealism, and their many offshoots depend for their success on shocking the viewer. This is why they date so quickly. Art whose chief resource is its shock value soon comes to seem, at best, quaint. Surrealism’s heavy-handed, mechanical eroticism, its formulaic distortions of perspective, its calculated impossibilities and arbitrary juxtapositions: Ho-hum. Perhaps it was all once quite thrilling; perhaps even now it sparks some residual frisson in adolescents who have just discovered sex and have come to realize that the world does not always behave rationally. For anyone interested in art, however, it is a pretty meager diet.

There are two reasons for this. In the first place, as the art historian Hans Sedlmayr observed long ago, most of what goes under the name of Surrealism would be better labeled Sous-Realism. Surrealism pretends to unlock the door to a magical, supra-rational world of insight above the happenstance of everyday life. More often, though, its phantasmagoria appear as refugees from the disintegrated world below everyday rational life. Surrealism represents the mind’s detritus, not its generally inaccessible wisdom.

There is also the fact that Dada and Surrealism are primarily events in intellectual or cultural life, not in the life of art. The famous “anti-aesthetic” polemics of Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, et al. must be understood with this in mind. At bottom, the tradition inaugurated by Dada is a tradition of illustration or propaganda: images are created not for artistic ends but to promote various “ideas,” slogans, pronunciamentos. The whole aesthetic dimension of art is highjacked, cannibalized, for the sake of an extra-aesthetic (indeed, anti-aesthetic) purpose. Hence the irony, as this exhibition reminds us, that what is artistically most satisfying about someone like Ernst is precisely what violates the strictures of the program to which he dedicated his talent. One leaves feeling that it is a pity he did not violate them more often.

“Max Ernst” will travel to the Menil Collection, Houston (May 27-August 29, 1993), and the Art Institute of Chicago (September 15-November 30, 1993). A catalogue, edited by William Camfield, has been published by MOMA/Prestel (384 pages, $75; $37.50 paper).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 8, on page 56
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