Max Ernst’s imagery and texts revolve around moments that remain unrepeatable, evoke experiences that cannot be predicted. Again and again epiphanies come into play, sudden visions that shatter the familiar and habitual. My own encounter with Max Ernst fell under this star as well, the star of the necessary coincidence. It was anything but a meeting I had made efforts to bring about, quite the contrary. The first time I saw the artist, I felt something akin to resistance. This reaction was due to a mentor who had immediately taken me under his wing when I arrived in Paris in 1959. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the renowned art dealer and historian of Cubism who had fled there from Stuttgart, personified the brilliant career of a german in Paris. The fact that this distinguished man was so kind to me a few years after the war, that he opened doors for me with Picasso, Masson, and his poet friends Ponge, Leiris, Prévert, Queneau, Salacrou and Malraux, I now realize in hindsight, was a generous gift on the part of someone from a country that had been destroyed in every respect. Kahnweiler expressly warned me against Surrealism, adding, “And beware of Max Ernst.” Those were his very words.
Kahnweiler was instinctively aware of the irrational temptation exerted by this movement, and especially by the outstanding and confounding art of Max Ernst. The inexplicability and open-endedness that were definitive of Surrealism struck him as uncanny. Basically the great dealer and interpreter wished to see art in the tradition of the Enlightenment, as a story that contributed to the illumination of life and art, not as a parable of that anxiety or metaphysical serenity that brought Max Ernst’s pictures into the proximity of Kafka’s merciless precision.
Ernst and Kahnweiler. Thinking back on those days, I see myself attempting again and again to bring these two, so different, friends under one roof. I was helped in this regard by the concept of structure, which was crucial to both. Kahnweiler attempted to discover laws underlying the Cubist experiment, which in fact ran counter to any logical explanation. Ernst was able to build an oeuvre on his play with chance, his recourse to the world of reproductions, which he transformed into his inimitable collages, only because he, like Kahnweiler, had a precise idea of what was possible and what was not.
Before actually making his acquaintance, I had seen Max Ernst at the beginning of the 1960s in the Quartier Latin, at the Galerie “Point Cardinal”. A baffling picture hung there, The Temptation of St Anthony. A demonic image with which, shortly after the war, whilst in New York, the artist had won a Hollywood-sponsored competition for the film Bel Ami, based on the eponymous novel by Maupassant and directed by Albert Lewin. Mas Ernst suddenly emerged from one of the door leading to the gallery offices, caught sight of me and appraised me. It apparently amused him that someone had fallen for his Temptation. Yet still I held to Kahnweiler’s warning, which had immunized me to the beguilements of Surrealism.
It was not until a few years later, in March 1966, that I met - definitively, as it were - this figure of the century.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had requested me to write an essay on the occasion of the artist’s seventy - fifth birthday. I rang him up in his apartment on Rue de Lille. Ernst concluded the conversation in an extremely amiable way by saying that he was in the process of leaving Paris, and suggested that I pay him a visit in Provence. A few days later I walked into his house in Seillans, between Grasse and Draguignan.
Shortly after this visit, I would devote my first book to the marvelous sequence of frottages, Histoire Naturelle, and then begin my work on the multiple-volume catalogue raisonné, which would shed light on an oeuvre whose previous publication had left many gaps.
For over ten years, until his death thirty years ago, on 1 april 1976, Max Ernst and I saw each other almost every day. I was permitted to join the Rendez-vous des amis, to which Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, Roberto Matta, Samuel Beckett and André Masson belonged. All of these artists stood for a life and work in which calculation breaks down.
They pursued encounters that, at one fell swoop, put conventional thinking and feeling out of joint. Their works were illuminated by that spark set off by a short-circuiting of uninsulated, naked, mutually alien images - the semantic defect that generated the new light of Surrealism. The “eye in a state of wildness”, as Breton put it, and a consciousness rubbed sore by passion, found their way together.
This is the reason why Max Ernst, who depicted this new vision like no other, does not invite us into a solid edifice in which we can feel safe with our biases and preconceptions, but confronts us with a web of existential insights in which it is an enrichment and a joy to become entangled.
Author: Werner Spies
Translation from German by John W. Gabriel
Max Ernst, Helly Nahmad Gallery, New-York.