Max Ernst, Loplop présente, 1931, pencil, ink, and collage on paper, 25.5 × 19.5 inches. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, France. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery. Photo by Diego Flores.
Max Ernst, an artist whose career spanned nearly three quarters of the twentieth century, liked to say that he took orders from a bird. The bird is called Loplop and appears in several of the forty-five works currently on display in Collages at Kasmin Gallery in Manhattan. In two of these, the large Loplop présente (1931) and smaller Loplop présente la mouton mystérieux (1960), the bird is implied by free-floating heads and feet. In an untitled piece from 1972, a whole and oval bird strides along with a little companion at its side. Part drawing and part pasted cut-out, the bird’s companion is almost—but not quite—an egg. Ernst sometimes said he was Loplop. And why shouldn’t he be?
Born in 1891 in Germany, Ernst was famous in his lifetime: first as the Dada insurrectionist “Dadamax” in Cologne, and then in France as a Surrealist. The earliest of the collages at Kasmin dates to 1920, the most recent to 1975. In addition to collages, Ernst made paintings, drawings, frottages, sculptures, and three collage novels. A page from the second of these novels, published in 1930, hangs in the show: a woman riding a lion and shooting an arrow. Her shield depicts two men fiddling with machinery; there’s also a kneeling monk, a pirate-looking fellow on her right, and part of another man on her left. Ernst’s caption beneath reads: “…ou en bas, cette indécente amazone dans son petit desert privé…”—“…or, down there, that indecent Amazon in her little private desert…,” in his partner Dorothea Tanning’s translation.
As with most of the images he used in his collages, Ernst found this “Amazon” in books that reproduced nineteenth-century engravings. In the process of scrambling these stories, Ernst revealed their unintentional humor (riding a lion) and absurd piety (the monk is patting a plant) while assembling them into images that can’t be used to tell a coherent story. Another 1929 collage depicts a man looking despondent before two very large, looming pots. Behind man and pots is part of a whale, with a little harpooner on top. What is the narrative, the chronology, even just the scale which will make sense of this? The collages provoke reactions, but reactions that cannot be put toward any end. They are against harmony and are a rebellion against sense.
Installation view of Max Ernst: Collages, Kasmin Gallery. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery. Photo by Christopher Stach.
In his catalogue essay for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ernst retrospective in 2005, Robert Storr writes that what survives of Surrealism is its “alienating effect, which feeds on ambiguity and gathers itself into a lust for unfamiliar sensations.” Yet despite the exhilarating weirdness of the older collages, there’s something slight, or slightly attenuated, about Collages. Sixteen of the works on display are very small lettrines: ornamental, collaged letters Ernst made in the 1950s and 1970s for a book and a catalogue raisonné. They are postcards to the self that reach across time. In one from 1958, two hats rest on the crossbar of a capital A as though blown there from 1920’s gleefully, robustly absurd The Hat Makes the Man, a collage Ernst fashioned while minding his father-in-law’s hat factory.
The latter is, sadly, not on display at Kasmin, but it is nearby, in the collection of the Musem of Modern Art. Also at MoMA is Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, a work of Renaissance blue skies and a tiny background arch, with a three-dimensional little house and gate attached to the canvas. The blues and the architecture gesture at the history of Western art, which Ernst, the son of a painter, knew well. But it isn’t a painting; it isn’t an assemblage or a collage—you can’t wrap your mind around it. Instead there is what Ernst’s friend Paul Éluard called, in a poem translated by Samuel Beckett, “the unbroken chain of dawns in the brain.”
Max Ernst, Singe, 1970, gouache, ink, and collage on paper, 7.25 × 6 inches. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, France. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery. Photo by Diego Flores.
As a child, Ernst had an experience of fever-induced hallucinations in which he saw figures in the wallpaper. Ernst’s art was about letting the wallpaper take over, declaring the “imagined” just as valid as the “real.” In a biographical chronology he wrote entitled “An Informal Life of M. E.,” Ernst described his work best: “Birds become men and men become birds. Catastrophes become hilarious.”
Thus, Loplop persists, and it would be a shame to miss his visits and his gifts. There’s a delightful late collage at Kasmin from 1970, six years before Ernst’s death. A monkey sits on the lintel of a doorway flanked by Corinthian columns. The doorway is subtly offset with a few streaks of green and orange paint, and beyond the doorway is a frond: a forest of sorts, one of Ernst’s recurring images.
Max Ernst: Collages is on view at Kasmin Gallery in New York City until February 29.