Prehistoric Future: Max Ernst and the Return of Painting between the Wars
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One of the most admired artists of the twentieth century, Max Ernst was a proponent of Dada and founder of surrealism, known for his strange, evocative paintings and drawings. In Prehistoric Future, Ralph Ubl approaches Ernst like no one else has, using theories of the unconscious—surrealist automatism, Freudian psychoanalysis, the concept of history as trauma—to examine how Ernst’s construction of collage departs from other modern artists.
Ubl shows that while Picasso, Braque, and Man Ray used scissors and glue to create collages, Ernst employed techniques he himself had forged—rubbing and scraping to bring images forth onto a sheet of paper or canvas to simulate how a screen image or memory comes into the mind’s view. In addition, Ernst scoured the past for obsolete scientific illustrations and odd advertisements to illustrate the rapidity with which time passes and to simulate the apprehension generated when rapid flows of knowledge turn living culture into artifact. Ultimately, Ubl reveals, Ernst was interested in the construction and phenomenology of both collective and individual modern history and memory. Shedding new light on Ernst’s working methods and the reasons that his pieces continue to imprint themselves in viewers’ memories, Prehistoric Future is an innovative work of critical writing on a key figure of surrealism.
analogies further than all the others, only to lapse into an idling that allows the parody of the imitation of nature to be recognized as a mechanical repetition (plate 1). Against a winter landscape, at the lower edge of the picture stands an unfolded, three-part panel—even more clearly a stage set than in figure 12—that obstructs the view of the winter landscape. Evidently, this is a case of a mise en abyme in the overpainting, whose layers of paint occlude the view of the overpainted
partake in the foundation myth of what at first was a purely textual activity. In fact, the most important artistic positions from impressionism to cubism made themselves out to be actively anti-literary.19 Ernst, who made many of his best works in other media, surely had his own reasons for preferring the literary illustrations of Max Klinger or Odilon Redon over pure painting. At the same time, however, surrealism—in distinguishing itself with great firmness from “merely literary” movements and
primordial forest of automatism.34 Surrealist texts in fact abound with monstrous/seductive dragonflies, traditional or invented hybrid creatures such as the “lyre bird” and the “rain bird,” modern sphinxes stationed between prehistoric ferns. Creatures that confound traditional classifications of nature or cross the boundaries to human culture embody the audacious metaphorics of surrealism—the necessary encounter of the most dissimilar things in the intersection of representation and its
And third, the 1920s bring the return to a mimesis that is eerily alive. While Ernst’s Dadaist works preserve a mimetic residue in an essentially mortified state, his surrealism posits mortification in order to discover in it a ghostly afterlife—a simulacrum of the simultaneously illusory and imitative mimesis whose living unity the young Rhineland painter had hoped to discover on his excursions into the countryside. The following attempt to describe the history of Ernst’s artistic practice along
communautaire”; Kaufmann, Poétique des groupes littéraires. 8 Werner Spies and Günter Metken, Max Ernst: Œuvre-Katalog (Köln: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1975), nos. 564ff. The suggested date “ca. 1923,” in light of the following entry from the logbook at surrealist headquarters, should be adjusted to 1924. Paule Thévenin, ed., Bureau de recherches surréalistes: Cahier de la permanence octobre 1924–avril 1925 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 29: “Mercredi 22 octobre 1924. Permanence: Simone [Breton] J. A.