Drawn mostly from its own collections, MoMA’s Surrealist tribute show “Max Ernst: Beyond Painting,” running through January 1, takes visitors on a nature walk and space trip through the eyes of one of the 20th century’s wildest art innovators.
Ernst cross-pollinated his Data and Surrealist works on paper with his lifelong fascination with natural history, microscopic life, and the furthest reaches of the Universe. MoMA’s showcase of Ernst’s collages, mixed-media mash-ups, and books serve up science and nature in increasingly idiosyncratic ways.
Recovering from his years of service in the German army during World War I, the mysteries of nature, science, and outer space worked their ways into Ernst’s body of work as he founded the Dada movement and transitioned into a leading light of the Surrealist art movement.
In the first gallery, Ernst embellished and cut up found illustrations. At a distance, they look charming, but take a closer look. In a small work from 1920, he mixes a dissected beetle and a see-through fish with an illustration from a German military manual about how to conduct chemical warfare from the air.
Nearby, an arresting, colorful painting with meticulous writhing biomorphic forms, who seem to be dancing, is not what it seems. Ernst painted over an otherwise dull science teaching chart showing yeast-cell mutation, turning it into an absurd micro-world where microscopic forms dance, flirt, and carry on.
A 1924 “Natural History” portfolio in the show demonstrates Ernst’s use of his frottage technique. He creates visions of animals and plants by rubbing crayon on paper over different textured surfaces. It was his contribution to the Surrealist fascination with using unfiltered “automatic” techniques for picture making and novel writing.
Painted rocks, biomorphic forms, and cut-up illustrations made into surreal picture books are on display, along with a Moonrise work. Ernst took burlap, plastered it, spray painted a moonscape, and slathered on thick coats of paint. See this, his butterfly drawing and more in our Flickr album.
Ernst kept drawing inspiration from the natural world as he and his Paris collaborators fled World War II in Europe, tried to adjust as refugees in the United States, and ultimately returned to the Continent.
The show closes with a magnificent portfolio of work from 1964 that is inspired by a nineteenth-century astronomer’s discovery of a small planetoid. Ernst seriously and whimsically considered what it must have been like to peer into the void of space and find what lies beyond our normal field of vision. In one work, he writes:
“It would be poetic to give the last planets 97 98 and 99 the 3 Fates Clotho Lachesis and Atropos not to cut the thread of research but to wrap up the first hundred of the little planets.”
Ernst spent his life pushing the limits on the edge of discovery.
Here’s a walk though Ernst’s fascinating work with MoMA curator Anne Umland: