Art

Birding with Max Ernst

In the Museum of Modern Art’s current Ernst retrospective, the artist’s avian alter ego, Loplop, reveals a realer reality.

Max Ernst, "Woman, Old Man, and Flower" ("Weib, Greis und Blume," 1923/1924), oil on canvas, 38 x 51 1/4, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1937 (photo by Kate Keller, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, “Woman, Old Man, and Flower” (“Weib, Greis und Blume,” 1923/1924), oil on canvas, 38 x 51 1/4, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1937 (photo by Kate Keller, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

In the annals of modern art, not enough has been said about Loplop, Max Ernst’s avian alter ego. Yet “the Bird Superior,” beaked as Ernst himself, titters at the margins of the prints and dashes through the pages of the artist’s image-novels. Now you can see Loplop and other Ernst bird-things at the Museum of Modern Art, where the retrospective Max Ernst: Beyond Painting, casts light on the weirder works — the frottages, grottages, and collages — alongside the better-known paintings.

Ernst’s surrealist vision still feels fresh. A century ago, with postwar Europe in mustard-gas-steamed ruins, he joyously ridiculed contemporary notions of progress. His formal innovations were designed to upend Enlightenment ideals of reason and supplant them with a transcendent dream logic, what founding surrealist André Breton famously called “psychic automatism in its pure state.” You’ll find Loplop preening away in many of the prints on display at MoMA, presiding over a fractured world of unconscious symbols. His appearance is one of the things that makes this exhibition something more than just another Ernst retrospective. Not quite a god, Loplop is Ernst’s familiar spirit, and where he goes a kinetic energy follows.

Max Ernst, "Bird‑Head" ("Oiseau-tête," 1934–35), bronze, 20 5/8 x 15 x 10 3/8 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the James Thrall Soby Bequest, 1983 (photo by Thomas Griesel, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, “Bird‑Head” (“Oiseau-tête,” 1934–35), bronze, 20 5/8 x 15 x 10 3/8 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the James Thrall Soby Bequest, 1983 (photo by Thomas Griesel, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

Loplop arrives squarely in Ernst’s Surrealist period, though the artist is also associated with the earlier Dada and German Expressionist movements. The Bird Superior debuts among the misappropriated Victorian texts and illustrations of Ernst’s first collage novel, The Hundred Headless Woman (1929), transliterated from the French “La Femme 100 têtes.” A restless manipulator of language, Ernst in his title makes a double entendre of the homophones cent têtes (hundred-headed) and sans têtes (headless). It’s a move straight out of the modernist playbook. Words, Ernst reminds us, are shaky. They can assume contradictory meanings simultaneously, in this case both multiplicity and absence.

Max Ernst, page from "Oedipus (Oedipe), Volume IV," from A Week of Kindness or the Seven Capital Elements ("Une Semaine de bonté ou les sept éléments capitaux," 1933–34), published 1934, line block after collage, from a five-volume serial novel with 182 line blocks after collages, page: 10 3/4 x 8 1/16 in, publisher: Éditions Jeanne Bucher, Paris; printer: Georges Duval, Paris; edition: 812; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Louis E. Stern Collection, 1964 (photo by Robert Gerhardt. © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, page from “Oedipus (Oedipe), Volume IV,” from A Week of Kindness or the Seven Capital Elements (“Une Semaine de bonté ou les sept éléments capitaux,” 1933–34), published 1934, line block after collage, from a five-volume serial novel with 182 line blocks after collages, page: 10 3/4 x 8 1/16 in, publisher: Éditions Jeanne Bucher, Paris; printer: Georges Duval, Paris; edition: 812; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Louis E. Stern Collection, 1964 (photo by Robert Gerhardt. © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

The page on display at MoMA draws out this theme of holding contradictions in equilibrium, challenging our expectations. It features what look to be a determined couple of Toucans, birds of a feather, perched in protective postures with their human charges. Set on floral etchings, the tropical scene plays at mythologies of “going native”: “The eye without eyes, the 100-headed woman and Loplop return to the wild state and cover the eyes of their faithful birds with fresh leaves,” reads its French caption. What the collage suggests most strongly is a different way of seeing: vision without sight. It juxtaposes, but recontextualizes, familiar images of man and woman in relation with the world. Its female figure and headless male, plucked from more traditional figurative roles, entangle themselves with their oversized avian guardians, but they don’t dominate them. The leaves and flowers, rather than signifying natural purity — the “wild state” the caption ironizes, or what John Berger has called the “sentimental view of nature” — indicate the natural world as a field of mystery and instability. Loplop’s faithful presence ushers us into one of what Ernst called his “voluntarily provoked hallucinations.” The image guides the viewer away from the rigid systems of knowledge that dominated the early 20th century — language, politics, science — and toward a mindset that can reconcile irrationality.

Max Ernst, "Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group" ("Loplop présente les membres du groupe surréaliste," 1931), cut‑and‑pasted gelatin silver prints, cut‑and‑pasted printed paper, pencil, and pencil frottage on paper, 19 3/4 x 13 1/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1935 (photo by John Wronn, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, “Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group” (“Loplop présente les membres du groupe surréaliste,” 1931), cut‑and‑pasted gelatin silver prints, cut‑and‑pasted printed paper, pencil, and pencil frottage on paper, 19 3/4 x 13 1/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1935 (photo by John Wronn, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

“Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group” (1931) addresses a similar set of concerns to the relationship between the artist and the world. Here our feathered friend occupies the margins, holding the focal collage like a sandwich board, his cartoonish beak peeking over the top and clumsy feet anchoring its bottom. The image itself presents disparate elements: scientific illustrations of sea life; a photo of a crowd; a diagram of some blades; various rubbings in the negative space; and, centrally, the disembodied busts of Salvador Dalí, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara sporting his monocle, Ernst himself, and a mute crowd of other surrealist practitioners.

Such group pictures were a convention of Surrealist visual art, a way of placing the knowing artist at the scene of the dream (see, for example, the fools peering through the window in Ernst’s painting “The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter”). But here the Surrealists are subordinated, and far less knowing. Even Breton, the movement’s pouty pioneer, answers to Loplop’s supreme authority, subverting the Western reverence for the self-styled Great Man. One thing’s for sure: The Surrealists are not in control. Instead, Loplop is the watcher, a conduit between the hapless artists, placed in a disorienting and indifferent environment, and the Surreal world they seek to project.

Max Ernst, "Birds above the Forest" ("Oiseaux au-dessus de la forêt," 1929), oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 25 1/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Katherine S. Dreier Bequest, 1953 (photo by John Wronn, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, “Birds above the Forest” (“Oiseaux au-dessus de la forêt,” 1929), oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 25 1/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Katherine S. Dreier Bequest, 1953 (photo by John Wronn, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

Other birds flutter through Beyond Painting, echoing and expanding on the artist’s passionate pursuit of the unfamiliar, from the frantic feathered heads that top the bodies of male dandies in the later collage novel A Week of Kindness or the Seven Deadly Elements (1933) to the beaked bronze totem of “Bird-Head” (1934–35). Far from the phallic symbols of the Freudian dreamwork (which was indeed a great influence on Ernst), the birds appear in their classical role: as guides between the mundane world and a truer, more mysterious one. (Note, too, that the artist’s birds rarely demonstrate the gift of flight, their most coveted ability, and the one psychoanalysis claims to symbolize that most erotic defiance of gravity.) Beyond Painting also includes a selection of the artist’s more celebrated works — over-paintings like “The Hat Makes the Man” (1920), “Woman, Old Man, and Flower” (1923), and “Napoleon in the Wilderness” (1941) — but its most significant contribution is a new view on the supposedly minor ones, like the Loplop pictures, which crystallize Ernst’s dominant preoccupations.

A bird in the hand, the saying goes, is as good as two in the bush. Ernst, for his part, never even quite lets us get one in hand, but we’re better off for trying. For a modern viewer, these images can’t help but conjure the chaos our own era’s promises of progress have created. Amid cataclysmic climate change, perpetual drone war, and a consciousness divided by our technology addiction, any appeal to the rational mind rings hollow. And lately, of course, a whole different kind of “psychic automatism” has emerged — a constant noise of absurd populist rhetoric and relentless social chatter. It’s no accident that the word “surreal” has come to describe a range of trends and tactics in Western life. In this climate, Ernst’s works feel like a bastion of imagination against false forms of consciousness. With so much noise incoming today, we need Loplop in our lives more than ever, to help reveal a realer reality and translate disorder into a kind of beauty, however harsh.

Max Ernst, "The Hat Makes the Man" ("C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme," 1920), gouache, pencil, oil, and ink on cut‑and‑pasted printed paper on paper, 13 7/8 x 17 3/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1935 (photo by Paige Knight, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, “The Hat Makes the Man” (“C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme,” 1920), gouache, pencil, oil, and ink on cut‑and‑pasted printed paper on paper, 13 7/8 x 17 3/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1935 (photo by Paige Knight, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, "The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses" ("La Biciclette graminée garnie de grelots les grisons grivelés et les échinodermes courbants l’échine pour quêter des caresses," ca 1921), gouache, ink, and pencil on printed paper on paperboard, 29 1/4 x 39 1/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1937 (photo by Robert Gerhardt, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Max Ernst, “The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses” (“La Biciclette graminée garnie de grelots les grisons grivelés et les échinodermes courbants l’échine pour quêter des caresses,” ca 1921), gouache, ink, and pencil on printed paper on paperboard, 29 1/4 x 39 1/4 in, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1937 (photo by Robert Gerhardt, © 2017 Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

Max Ernst: Beyond Painting continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 1, 2018.

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