Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism

William Camfield

This text was excerpted from chapters IV and V of the manuscript for a forthcoming catalogue written to accompany a major retrospective of Ernst’s work organized by The Menil Collection with the participation of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art institute of Chicago. It is reprinted by kind permission of the author and The Menil Collection.

While relationships were chilly in Paris over the fall and winter of 1920-21, Ernst experienced one of the most productive moments in his entire life. The basic course of his work during this time is established by a number of dated works, by his correspondence with [Tristan] Tzara and [André] Breton, and by two exhibitions: one a group exhibition with Das Junge Rheinland in February-March 1921; the other his important solo show at Au sans Pareil [Galerie] in may.1 These documents indicate that by the end of 1920 he was working simultaneously with a variety of themes in four or five different processes: overpainting of illustrations taken chiefly from the teaching aids catalogue collages made with parts of photographs and illustrations (many from the same teaching aids catalogue), combinations of overpaintings and collages, photographic enlargements of some collages, and, finally a special category Ernst called “Fatagaga,” standing for Fabrication of Paintings Guaranteed Geometric (Fabrication de Tableaux Gasométriques Garantis).
Ernst’s work at this time is, in fact, so prolific and varied that the goal of presenting it in a coherent, structured manner becomes a daunting task…Material and processes are important—intrinsic even to how Ernst sees, thinks, and creates—but these processes do not provide an adequate structure for the study of this period. Indeed given Ernst’s will and adeptness for concealing his working methods, the specific process employed is not always apparent, and to this day errors of media and process persist in publications of his work. Still more significant is the fact that the imagery—and often a dialogue between images and inscriptions—is of paramount importance. The processes that Ernst employs service his intellect and vision, and our own personal experience of these works begins with a visual-literary encounter. Consequently…I will rely primarily on thematic structure [but] this approach entails problems of its own…[Themes] in Ernst’s work are rarely—if ever—clear and simple. They are instead multivalent, veiled, and overlapping, and quickly impose a rigid thematic order.
Several collages from the winter of 1920-21 appear to deal with the theme of war, although images suggestive of violence are frequently charged with themes of sexuality and/or religion that simply do not yield to rigid classifications or to pat interpretations. For these images it is necessary to [turn] to Ernst’s work featuring human beings and hybrid beings. A common element in these works is a thing or a being which flies —an airplane, bird, angel, or some hybrid of human/angel/bird/devil/flying machine. A richness of such associations already existed in Ernst’s experiences, beginning with the dangerous confusion between birds and humans attributed to the simultaneous discovery of the death of his poet cockatoo and the birth of his sister Loni. Through curch, classroom, and independent reading he had encountered concepts of birds and flights that ranged from the dove of the Holy Ghost to the eagle of Jupiter and Frued’s interpretation of dreams about flying as a longing to possess sexual prowress. From Apollaire’s poem “Zone” he had been exposed to a heady pre-war association of religion, mythology, and technology:

Christ who flies higher than the aviators…
Icarus Enoch Elijah Apollonius of Tyrana
Hover near the original airplane…
Everyone eagle phoenic phis
Fraternizes with the flying machine.2

From the war he was educated in the hypocrisy and corruptibility of such high-minded unions.
“Massacre of the innocents” is a major representative of this genre. It is an exploding, fragmented composition that splinters our attention. We seem to be looking down at a city under an ominous sky, attacked from the upper left by a monstrous green hybrid fashioned from a Lilienthal glider and an angel guiding shepherds in Stephen Lochner’s painting of: The Virgin Adoring the Christ Child.” Three male figures—made with a stencil fashioned from the figures in “Young Man Encumbered with a Flowering Faggot”—attempt to flee the scene, striding over collage parts that have been described as looking like railroad tracks, ladders, or conveyor belts. They are actually parts of photographs of the facades of grand public buildings with long rows of columns or windows and arches—some viewed from sharp angles—which have been turned on end.3 Sensations of attack, flight, and confusion are vivid. The title painted across the lower left implies the biblical subject of Herod’s massacre of the children, but the mature victims in this collage and the monstrous airplane suggest a reference to the recent war where for the first time man and his flying machines visited destruction on its victims from on high.4
Such references are not unique for Ernst at that time. This fusing of bird sand airplanes, emerged in Paul Klee’s work as early as 1917-18 when one of his tasks in the army was to photograph crashed planes. Werkmeister has interpreted Klee’s images of plummeting birds as references to falling and crashed airplanes, with an additional dimension incorporating God and man. He observes the tradition from Leonardo onward of comparing men in flying machines to angels, and associates a 1917 passage in Klee’s diary to the theme of birds and war plane: “Something new is preparing itself, the diabolical will be merged into a simultaneity with the celestial…”5
A somewhat different, muted version of this theme appears in an untitled collage which depicts a hybrid airplane/woman flying over a barren plain with three men in the lower right corner, one of whom is injured and being carried off by his companions. The context implies an injury sustained somehow by an encounter with the monstrous female/machine hybrid, but the relationship between the men and the female/machine is not clear. No aggressive action or fear is expressed, and, indeed, one’s sympathy could be attracted to the female/machine, given the gesture of her arms and the turn of that unbearable engine/head which seems to recoil from the scene below.6
Two other hybrid creatures, “Health Through Sport” and “Above the Clouds Midnight Passes…,” were produced in a photographic medium which suggests a document of something unworldly that really exists. The extant collage for “Above the Clouds Midnight Passes” provides a telling example of Ernst’s goal in the instance. On a photograph of clouds viewed from above, he has constructed a strange hybrid female being from details of three black-and-white reproductions: a crocheted form which serves as a bifurcated, wing-like head that surmounts a ball-of-twine torso and the bare legs of a female model in high heeled shoes. The evidence of the cutting and gluing of these three parts and their contrast to the tan color of the cloudscape attract attention to the artist’s hand in the creation of this work. But in the photographic enlargement of this collage (28 ¾ x 21 5/8 inches vs. 7 ½ x 5 1/8 inches), the presence of the artist is removed by the suppression of the collage edges and by the overall black/white tonality of the photograph, further muted by the softer definition of the photographic print. With some visual effort, we may conclude that this strange creature was derived from some sort of photomontage—the tradition had been established early on in history of photography—but that conclusion is not comforting for long in the face of the matter-of-fact presence of this armless creature whose eyes transfix us like those of the enchanted plant creatures in Ernst’s animated landscapes. There is a more convincing quality to that crocheted head than to the human legs, and there is a more convincing quality to this creature overall than to the traditional hybrids of Emil Bayard.
The crocheted head of her male counterpart is likewise more riveting and animated than his body which appears to be an enlarged photograph of a male model in a conventional art studio pose. His murky space is not defined and he is accompanied by a “hockey stick” and a cutaway view of the brain of an alligator held up like a trophy of the hunt.7 Both images seem to be related to their titles. The extended title for “Above the Clouds Midnight Passes…” is long and poetic: “Above the clouds midnight passes. Above the midnight hovers the invisible bird of day. A little higher than the bird the ether extends and the walls and roofs float.”8 The title for “Heat Through Sport” is brief, crisp, and, I suspect, satirical. The “hockey” stick and athletic body seemed commensurate with the title, but what manner of sport is this, and what is one to make of this sportsman with his gruesome trophy and vaguely feline/female head that establishes eye contact with us? Our experience is further complicated by a recognition that the nude model injects the theme of art, especially the classical tradition based on Greco-Roman sculpture.
[The following] summer in the Tyrol was to be a period of fruitful experimentation was to be a period of fruitful experimentation for Ernst. In addition to [a new type of collage composed of nineteenth-century wood engravings], his work consisted of rubbings and more familiar collages employing parts of photographs and reproductions, including additional Fatagagas…The new collages from wood engravings would, however, comprise the bulk of Ernst’s work into the summer of 1922…[The] uniform texture of these engravings—coupled with precision in cutting and piecing the parts together—permitted the appearance of seamless whole, fully as convincing an matter-of-fact as the overpaintings and earlier collages based on photographs and photographic reproduction.

William Camfield is professor of the history of art at Rice University.

Editor’s note: After this year of extensive and active use of photography in his work, Ernst virtually abandoned the medium in favor of other fields of exploration and experimentation.

1. Regrettably, virtually nothing is known of Ernst’s work in a third exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, “Drei Generationen in vier Sälen,” November 1920. One uninformative review has been reprinted by Spies, Max Ernst Collages, p 20.
2. Guillaume Apollinaire, “Zone,” quoted from Apollinaire, Alcools, Berkley, 1965, pp 2-13; translated by Anne Hyde Greet. For Freud’s interpretations of dreams and flying, see his article on “A Childhood Memory of Leonardo da Vinci” (Max Ernst Loplop, New York, 1983) and in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis(New York, 1977, p. 155; trans. James Strachey). Spies presents the most extended consideration of the human-bird theme in Ernst’s work: see Max Ernst Loplop, esp. pp 99-103 in this context.
3. The collage parts are difficult to identify. They include the building facades in the center of the composition, but the overall process is mysterious.
4. Aerial bombing was introduced early in the war and developed space. Allie planes bombed dirigible sites in Cologne and Düsseldorf in he fall of 1914, and on June 3, 1917, German planes bombed London.
5. O.K. Werkmeister, The Making of Paul Klee’s Career 1914-1920, pp. 100-05, 241.
6. Ernst rejected the title “The Murderess Airplane” once applied to this collage (Spies/Metken, Max Ernst Ouevre Katalog, no. 395), indicating perhaps hat this woman-airplane was not presented as an aggressor. The three men (civilians) in the lower right were cut out of an illustration in the teaching aids catalogue (p. 472) depicting arm holds for carrying an injured comrade. All other parts of this collage, including the landscape setting, are halftone reproductions of parts of photographs. See Foster (“Amour Fou,” October 56, Spring 1991, p. 80) for another interpretation of this collage as an image of military industrial shock with colliding images of war and peace, sex and death.
7. For the alligator brain, see p. 552 of the teaching aids catalogue…The sources for the other forms have not been found and the identity of the “hockey stick” is uncertain. Although this is a photographic enlargement. The socle may have been done largely in pencil; there are black specks on the thigh and suggestions of ink brushed over the shadowed side of the body. The man’s right foot, the sole, and the hockey stick all lack the definition of the torso and crocheted head.
8. The inscription in French reads: “Au dessus des nuages marche la minuit. Au dessus de la minuit plan l’oiseau invisible du jour. Un peu plus haut que l’oiseau léther pousse et les murs et les toits flottent.” 9. Spies, in Max Ernst, Collages, p. 93, uses the term “total collage” for these new collages entirely composed of collage parts fitted together to conceal the joints.