Centre Georoes Pom pidou
A founder of Dada and member of the surrealist movement, Max Ernst was largely recognized for his paintings (not to mention his fleeting relationships with women such as Peggy Guggenheim) but his sculpture has most often been overlooked. Fortunately, this show, organized by Pompidou Center director and Ernst specialist Werner Spies, remedies this oversight. Spanning six decades, it brings together more than 120 of his sensual, imaginative works in bronze, wood, cement, and stone.
“Sculpture, houses, landscapes” seems especially fitting given that the museum, whose collection is now traveling the world during its renovation, focuses on the constant migration of this nomadic artist. lt reveals lust how much Ernst eschewed repetition and predictability, both in his private life and in his work-emigrating from his native Germany to Cologne; vacationing in Switzerland with Alberto Giacometti; frequenting the salons of Paris, then inhabiting the French countryside with Leonora Carrington; discovering Long Island and the American Southwest in Sedona, Arizona, where he lived with painter Dorothea Tanning. ln each environment, Ernst appropriated the space, peopling it with bronze and stone sculptures or decorating the exterior walls with gargoyles and animals.
While Ernst’s paintings portray a grotesque, surrealistic world of grimacing phantoms and spiky plants sprouting fangs or claws, his sculptures, although often provocative, are much less satanic. Dreamlike and playful, they often communicate a kind of gentle poetry, from the lyrical Oiseau (1924), a tall, lanky assemblage of wooden elements in the shape of a bird, to the whimsical Deux Assistants or his giant frog, the Grande Grenoullie (both 1967).
His anthropomorphic early works, with their organic curves, recall the fantasies of Miro or the softly rounded forms of Arp. ln the mid-1930s, his sculptures appropriate the sensual shapes and forms he saw in nature- flowerpots, stones, bottles- which appear often and in various guises, becoming a kind of personal vocabulary.
ln Oedipe I and Oedipe II (both 1934), for instance, or in the austere, birdlike Habakuk (1934), totemlike figures are constructed from a series of sometimes inverted cylindrical flowerpot forms precariously balanced one upon another. Remarkably inventive, these works, with their clean, smooth contours, borrow found elements, then combine them in an ingenious way, playing with asymmetry and instability the way a child might build a house of cards. ln works such as La Belle Allemande (1937) and others, the shape of a scallop shell takes on an erotic suggestiveness, at times implying hair, a hand, a fig leaf or the female sex, and even the birth of Venus. Simple and charming, these chubby, rounded figures and elegant totemic sculptures have an almost magical quality.
That primitive, magical feeling is nowhere more present than in the evocative Capricorn (1946), Ernst’s monumental family portrait of himself, Dorothea Tanning, and their two long-haired, Tibetan dogs in Sedona, a rough, simplified depiction of a couple flanked by a pair of guardians, This majestic sculpture reveals the richness of Ernst’s encyclopedic knowledge; it reflects his perpetual
curiosity, his ability to combine a variety of artistic references while retaining his sense of originality.
Fish, birds, insects, and sirens come together in these hybrid figures, which feel antique, symbolic. Again revealing Ernst as a bricoleur, they combine the purity of African art and its sense of ritual with the bareness of Cycladic figures. The heads of both figures, for instance, suggest impassive tribal masks, or Pueblo kachina dolls. The male figure, made of two chunky, rectangular blocks topped with a triangular bull-shaped head that recalls his horned Roi Jouant (1944), holds a scepter that might be inspired by Brancusi’s Endless Column, or by Kwakiutl totems. The woman, with her long, giraffe neck and moon-shaped head, has a sensual lower body like a mermaid that recalls a shapely guitar or Man Ray’s sensual photograph of Kiki’s back as a violin.
Ernst has often been quoted as saying he “was born with a very strong feeling of the need for freedom…and that also means very strong feelings of revolt.” But while his paintings and collages are often frightening, projecting a feeling of condensed psychic violence and hallucination, in his sculptures, this viciousness dissipates. Ernst took himself less seriously in his sculptural work, which gave him a different kind of freedom. These eccentric works reveal a softer, gentler Max Ernst. Rather than rebellion, they express his love of nature and his tenderness for women with a childlike sense of wonder.