Surveying the long career of German-born artist Max Ernst (1891–1976), this exhibition puts emphasis on his engagement with process. MoMA has drawn from its holdings of Ernst’s paintings, sculptures, collages and printed matter to reveal how the techniques he conceived or refined enabled his polymorphous output.
Originally attracted to such artists as Gauguin, Van Gogh and Picasso, Ernst found his tastes utterly transformed by his service in the German Army during World War I. Returning to his hometown Cologne in 1918, he established a branch of the emergent Dada movement with members who, like Ernst, adopted an anti-rationalist, anti-traditionalist approach to art as a response to the carnage of trenches.
The show opens with Ernst’s Dadaist works, which he created with a variety of ingenious methods. In Farewell My Beautiful Land of Marie Laurencin (1920), he used discarded commercial printing blocks to stamp pictures and letters onto paper, joining them together to produce images of anthropomorphic machines. In The Hat Makes the Man from the same year, he similarly transformed illustrations of headgear from a haberdashery catalog into tottering mechanomorphic figures by linking them with colorful columns of paint.
In 1922 Ernst moved to Paris to join the French Dadaists. His work, more integrated and narrative than most Dada art, was partly the inspiration for André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, which declared automatism as the only true path to artistic revolution. Ernst’s Surrealist phase, which lasted from 1924 to 1927, was marked by his invention of frottage, which involved making rubbings of objects, and grottage, in which layers of pigment were built up and scraped away. The former is on vivid display in a suite of prints featuring plants coalescing into animals and insects, and the latter sparks the wonderful Birds Above the Forest (1929), an oil featuring stylized trees and round-eyed birds.
The 1930s saw Ernst cutting up 19th-century book illustrations for collage “novels” like A Week of Kindness (1933–34), which has subjects that include animal-headed men chasing each other down empty streets and women and men wrestling for no apparent reason. In 1941 he escaped to the United States, where he developed his last great innovation, decalcomania: a way of transferring painted designs from one surface to another, as in a landscape populated with fantastic figures called Napoleon in the Wilderness (1941).
Were it not for such sculptures as the wholly delightful An Anxious Friend (1944), which Ernst created with molds made from existing artifacts, the second half of this show—overly dependent on books and multiples—would be dry. But no matter. Any time is a good time to look at Ernst’s work, which prefigures the diversity of materials and approaches that are the trademarks of much contemporary art.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), 11 W 53rd St (212-708-9400, moma.org). Through Jan 1.