Monday, August 9, 2010

Revolution by Night

The blind man rocks a pretty child
The doe with all her fauns slips by
The dwarf observes with saddened pose
How Harlequin magically grows

Apollinaire, Twilight (Last verse), 1913

 Max Ernst, Revolution by Night, 1923 

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was the son of a teacher for blind and deaf children from Cologne. His father also was an amateur painter who once painted Max in the character of the infant Jesus. Seeing a Van Gogh exhibition inspired him to become a painter, but the First World War, in which Ernst - like Apollinaire - served as an artillery engineer, radicalised him. On his discharge, he joined the dada movement, attacking militarist Germany in darkly witty, enigmatic collages. The French poet André Breton organised an Ernst show in Paris in 1921; Breton rejected dada in favour of his own movement, surrealism, taking Freud's idea of the unconscious as a critique of rational bourgeois society.

 Neo Rauch, Father, 2007

The figure carried by the bowler-hatted man is generally accepted to be a self-portrait; it has Ernst's features. The bowler-hatted man is a portrait of Ernst's moustachioed father. Ernst - who was a vivid reader of Hegel, Max Stirner, Nietzsche and Freud -  thought of his father as a fool. He was not just a Sunday painter, but one with a heavy academic style. Ernst's entire career was a rejection of the middle-class idea of art for which his father stood.  A staunch Catholic, Ernst's father later denounced his son's work.

Max Ernst, The Virgin punishing Jesus in front of three witnesses: André Breton, Paul Eluard and the painter, 1926

And yet it is his father who takes on the role of the Virgin Mary in this Pieta, a representation of the cradling of the dead Christ by his mother. Here the child is not dead but on the verge of sleep, about to be carried up to bed. Father and son are at the bottom of a staircase on which a bearded figure, his head bandaged, sleepwalks. 

 Apollinaire with bandaged head, March 1916

This figure has been interpreted as a portrait of the French poet and critic Apollinaire, wounded in the head in the first world war. Max Ernst and Apollinaire met in Paris in 1913. It might well be that Ernst's Pieta was inspired by Apollinaire's Twilight - The blind man rocks a pretty child. And young Max's classical Roman hairstyle is certainly a reference to de Chirico's famous portait of Apollinaire:

 Giorgio de Chirico, Portrait prémonitoire de Guillaume Apollinaire, 1914

The Pieta in Renaissance art is an image of maternal love. In Ernst's painting, the father becomes a mother. The son, instead of raging against him in the Oedipal drama familiar to Ernst as a student of Freud, becomes as passive as a corpse. The father in his bowler hat, at once phallic and stultifying, has downcast eyes; he too is passive, an automaton. The funnel on the wall appears to be a communications device to take orders from the unconscious. It is floppy, another image of the phallus softened. The revolution here is not one fought across barricades, but a dreamy one in which barricades disintegrate and the boundaries of identity dissolve.

No comments:

Post a Comment