Monday, June 08, 2009

Max Ernst and symbolism in Surrealist art.

FJ got me thinking about this subject. Thanks FJ.
In the Second Manifesto André Breton commented that the goals of the surrealists were not unlike those of the medieval alchemists in their search for the elusive Philosopher's Stone. His statement has provoked a debate among critics and scholars concerning the role of alchemy in the development of surrealist thought and imagery. Max Ernst's central role in determining surrealist imagery is well known, and he too referred to alchemy and its practitioners in statements concerning his life and intentions. Perhaps most significantly, in his 1937 essay "Au delà de la peinture" ("Beyond Painting"), Ernst defined collage as "something like the alchemy of the visual image." Because he so often constructed works using the collage method, this simple statement provides a significant clue as to the importance of alchemy within his career. Yet such remarks by Ernst and by other surrealists concerning the importance of alchemy often have been dismissed as metaphors for the act of transformation, rather than being examined as serious evidence of their thematic intentions.
The alchemical quest begins with a search for Primal Matter, that chaotic base material from which gold can be produced. While its identity eludes many initiates, this mysterious substance contains all that is needed to complete the work. It is composed of two essential properties, Philosophic Sulphur and Philosophic Mercury, polarized masculine and feminine aspects of matter often pictured as King and Queen, or as the sun and the moon. In the laboratory, these two properties are separated, refined, and purified. In the illuminations and engravings that accompany many alchemical texts, their story unfolds as a romance, culminating with their sexual union and the birth of their child, the Philosopher's Stone.
Alchemical philosophy offers many symbolic parallels to surrealist thought. Gender and sexuality are basic components of alchemical imagery, as the chemical romance of the King and Queen unfolds in the laboratory. In recent years, the surrealists have sometimes been cast as sexually conservative, even misogynistic and homophobic, but their sexual explorations and recorded conversations of the late 1920s tested the limits of prevailing sexual taboos and sought to liberate these aspects of human life. In this task, Ernst played a significant role because of the knowledge of Freudian theory that he brought to the surrealist group early in its development, and because of his contributions to the sexualized nature of surrealist art. Throughout his career, Ernst fused male and female imagery into cohesive hybrids, similar to that most pervasive symbol of perfection, the alchemical Androgyne. Analyzing these aspects of his work reveals the pervasive alchemical symbolism it contains and points to a more complex reading of polarized sexuality in surrealist imagery as a whole.
The construction of Max Ernst as the magician of the surrealist movement began early in his career. By the 1930s, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, René Crevel, and Hans Arp all described Ernst as possessing magical powers of transformation. His autobiographical writings, collecting his childhood memories, dreams, and fantasies, were gathered into special editions of Cahiers d'Art (1937) and View (1942). In these essays, Ernst clarified his indebtedness to hermetic traditions, citing alchemy as a model for his working processes and claiming Cologne's occult past as his artistic heritage. Both issues were embellished with tributes written by friends, which helped to codify Ernst's place as surrealism's enigmatic alchemist-magician.
Critical acclaim, however, came rather late in Ernst's career. In 1951, his first major retrospective was organized in his hometown of Brühl on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Despite rave reviews from the critics, Ernst remained virtually unknown in the country of his birth. In 1954, he received the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale, his first international award, marking the beginning of a wider recognition of his achievements. Patrick Waldberg published the first biography in 1958, a study greatly enriched by the personal memories that Ernst shared during their conversations, as was the case with the later monographs by Eduard Trier and John Russell. In the early 1960s, large retrospective exhibitions were organized in New York and Cologne. The catalogs for these shows contained the earlier autobiographical essays, collected and expanded under Ernst's supervision.
In 1970, his poetry was compiled with other excerpted writings in Ecritures, further enriching the material presented by Ernst to both explain and obscure himself and his art. Several large retrospectives were mounted, including those at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1975), the Grand Palais in Paris (1975), and the Haus der Kunst in Munich (1979), each with catalog essays that helped further to define Ernst's place within the surrealist movement. Throughout the decade, Ernst scholarship was enriched by the publication of his catalogue raisonné, edited by Werner Spies, with contributions by Helmut R. Leppien and Sigrid and Günter Metken, supported by the Menil Foundation. In his numerous publications, Werner Spies has charted Ernst's technical experiments and stylistic development while presenting the many overlapping philosophical, literary, psychoanalytic, and mythological allusions in his work. In Max Ernst--Collagen, Inventar und Widerspruch (1974), Spies also reproduced several of the source illustrations Ernst used to make the collages. As director of the Max-Ernst-Kabinett in Brühl, Jürgen Pech has authored many catalogs throughout the 1980s and 1990s focused on specific periods in Ernst's life, analyzing his most significant accomplishments. In recent years his work continues to gather admirers and scholarly attention, as evidenced by several large exhibitions and their catalogs.
The breadth and depth of Ernst's work have come into greater focus through the efforts of many scholars, including Lucy Lippard, Uwe M. Schneede, Lothar Fischer, Werner Hofmann, Edward Quinn, Evan Mauer, Charlotte Stokes, Whitney Chadwick, Béatrix Blavier, Aaron Scharf, Peter Schamoni, Gerd Bauer, Dirk Teuber, Stephanie Poley, Renée Riese Hubert, Raoul Schrott, Elizabeth Legge, David Hopkins, Ludger Derenthal, Hal Foster, Ursula Lindau, and William Camfield. Their studies, which are cited throughout this book, have charted his many technical innovations and identified his thematic connections to psychoanalysis, human sexuality, Germanic legends and German Romantic philosophy, Oceanic legends, classical mythology, natural history and scientific experimentation, nineteenth-century academic art, photography, astronomy, linguistic theory, and, most important for this study, his interest in alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and other hermetic traditions.
Much of this recent scholarship has revealed the centrality of collage as Ernst's primary working method. In addition to the found images he used in the collages, many source images have been found for his paintings and sculptures as well, reproduced in paint or cast in plaster or bronze. Such discoveries have sparked lively debates concerning the relevance of the original context of his source illustrations. Once these source images have been found, how far should their original meanings be imposed on an analysis of the newly assembled works? Certainly, Ernst responded initially to the visual potentials of these collected images, but did their original meanings or contexts spark his interest as well?
Furthermore, many authors have observed that single images often hold multiple allusions simultaneously, like geological strata. Surrealist symbolism is multivalent, and Ernst's work is perhaps its most exuberant example. Biographical, Freudian, botanical, emblematic, and alchemical symbols can exist in a single work, combined with great humor and visual acuity, but without any seeming priority of significance. To further confuse the issue, authors who knew Ernst well insist that he resisted interpretation of his works and minimized the significance of his source materials. Contemporary scholars encounter these challenges when describing the intellectual strength of his work in an era still biased against the "literary" artist. Obviously, one must seek a balance when enumerating the rich thematic allusions in his work, while never losing sight of the optical power of the image--the pure visual magic that is the ultimate strength of his work.
Because of Ernst's own claims to hermetic influences, several authors have discussed his work in alchemical terms, although in early studies there was a reluctance to explore his affinities to traditional alchemical symbolism, or to compare his art to hermetic imagery. In 1966, André Pieyre de Mandiargues discussed Ernst's late landscapes, comparing them to the four alchemical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and to the three terrestrial kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, and animal). In spite of his many perceptive observations, Pieyre de Mandiargues stated at the outset, "I do not believe Max Ernst has greatly concerned himself with this science, nor do I think, moreover, that he ever specifically intended his work to have this meaning." Geoffrey Hinton's 1975 study of Ernst's painting at the Tate Gallery, Men Shall Know Nothing of This, combined alchemical and Freudian readings, launching other investigations of alchemical imagery in Ernst's work. Several scholars, including Charlotte Stokes, Elizabeth Legge, and especially David Hopkins, have identified alchemical allusions in his paintings and collage novels.
This book, which began with a dissertation on the alchemical symbolism in Ernst's third collage novel, Une Semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness), offers the first comprehensive survey of alchemical imagery throughout Ernst's career. While recognizing the pitfalls of taking such a single-minded approach to Ernst's work, this study adds another clue to unravel the intellectual and visual density of his work. Alchemy was one of many philosophies that fascinated Ernst, and its symbolism and imagery sparked numerous transformations of his art. Ernst rarely created replicas of alchemical emblems, but he understood its basic symbolism from the late 1910s and used alchemical imagery, transformed within a personal context, throughout his many stylistic evolutions.
The organization of this book can be compared to the alchemical Ouroborus, a circular serpent biting its own tail that signifies alchemy's underlying unity and cyclic return. The study begins with Ernst's mythic tales of his childhood (found in his many autobiographical essays), which contain the seeds of his later imagery. The second chapter traces the development of alchemical literature, particularly its revival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as a foundation for Ernst's exploration of this arcane science. His first hermetic images appeared during the Cologne Dada period. He developed these themes more fully following his move to Paris, where his interests in psychology, alchemy, and other occult phenomena paralleled similar explorations among the early surrealists. Their search for psychic automatism, visits to clairvoyants, group séances, and walking tours of the alchemical haunts of Paris are described as a backdrop for the evolution of Ernst's art throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 1930s, Ernst devoted himself to collage and also returned to making sculpture. In "Au delà de la peinture," he described alchemy as the perfect metaphor for his working processes, a statement that will be explored in light of Ernst's enthusiastic return to collage and to sculpture during the 1930s. The final two chapters return to his early years and gather together his images of women and his landscapes, comparing them to traditional alchemical symbols. His frequent fusion of male and female figures re-created the alchemical Androgyne, a model of balance within the polarized aspects of the mind and a reflection of his relationships with the women in his life. In his landscapes, solar eclipses form a natural conjunction of the sun and the moon. The earth, the sea, and the sky reflect the mirrored relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, a truism that underlies the alchemical mystery.
Max Ernst wove alchemical symbols into a complex matrix of meaning and personal revelation in his art. Steeped in the intellectual currents of his era, he was searching for a personal myth with multiple dimensions. His art evolved through continuing technical experiments and reflected a variety of deeply resonating philosophical, psychological, and hermetic concepts. Hermetic symbolism is only one aspect of the fertile combination of influences that play within his work, but it has a frequent and persistent presence that needs to be explored and deciphered.

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1 comment:

FJ said...

In praise of alchemy (Emerson, "On Beauty")

We should go to the ornithologist with a new feeling, if he could teach us what the social birds say, when they sit in the autumn council, talking together in the trees. The want of sympathy makes his record a dull dictionary. His result is a dead bird. The bird is not in its ounces and inches, but in its relations to Nature; and the skin or skeleton you show me, is no more a heron, than a heap of ashes or a bottle of gases into which his body has been reduced, is Dante or Washington. The naturalist is led from the road by the whole distance of his fancied advance. The boy had juster views when he gazed at the shells on the beach, or the flowers in the meadow, unable to call them by their names, than the man in the pride of his nomenclature. Astrology interested us, for it tied man to the system. Instead of an isolated beggar, the farthest star felt him, and he felt the star. However rash and however falsified by pretenders and traders in it, the hint was true and divine, the soul's avowal of its large relations, and, that climate, century, remote natures, as well as near, are part of its biography. Chemistry takes to pieces, but it does not construct. Alchemy which sought to transmute one element into another, to prolong life, to arm with power, — that was in the right direction. All our science lacks a human side. The tenant is more than the house. Bugs and stamens and spores, on which we lavish so many years, are not finalities, and man, when his powers unfold in order, will take Nature along with him, and emit light into all her recesses. The human heart concerns us more than the poring into microscopes, and is larger than can be measured by the pompous figures of the astronomer.

We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile: and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. All the elements pour through his system: he is the flood of the flood, and fire of the fire; he feels the antipodes and the pole, as drops of his blood: they are the extension of his personality. His duties are measured by that instrument he is; and a right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system. 'Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live. We do not think heroes can exert any more awful power than that surface-play which amuses us. A deep man believes in miracles, waits for them, believes in magic, believes that the orator will decompose his adversary; believes that the evil eye can wither, that the heart's blessing can heal; that love can exalt talent; can overcome all odds. From a great heart secret magnetisms flow incessantly to draw great events. But we prize very humble utilities, a prudent husband, a good son, a voter, a citizen, and deprecate any romance of character; and perhaps reckon only his money value, — his intellect, his affection, as a sort of bill of exchange, easily convertible into fine chambers, pictures, music, and wine.