at the Art Institute of Chicago, through November 30

One key to Max Ernst’s art can be found in Portrait of Gala (c. 1925). The lower half is part of a woman’s face, her eyes staring directly at the viewer. But above her eyebrows her forehead becomes a rolled-up scroll, and behind the peeled-back forehead is a yellowish green space filled with what could be clouds and three grayish disks, hanging like planets in some imaginary sky.

Ernst’s work is often hard to interpret, and always suggests multiple meanings, but here there’s at least one that’s obvious: behind the woman’s eyes–windows on the soul–lies infinite space, the boundless potential of the mind. The intensity of this portrait may come partly from the fact that Gala was Ernst’s lover; she was married to Ernst’s close friend the poet Paul Eluard, and they maintained an uneasy menage a trois for several years.

Along with about 180 other works in various media from the first decade of Ernst’s maturity, roughly 1916-1927, this picture can be seen in a superbly installed and sharply focused show at the Art Institute. An intelligent alternative to the all-over-the-map museum blockbuster, this exhibit gives an in-depth view of the period in which Ernst developed many of the artistic modes he used throughout his career, offering a fine introduction to both his work and 20th-century art.

Ernst was one of a small group of European artists–among them Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Matisse, and Picasso–who early in this century created modern art. Working in a wide variety of media, pioneering new techniques, and aiming not to represent nature but inner vision, each provided a kind of encyclopedia of new ways of seeing. Ernst was born in Germany in 1891, and his father was an accomplished Sunday painter. Ernst claimed in an autobiographical text, written in the third person, that at the age of three “he saw his father at work on a small watercolor . . . of a hermit sitting in a beech-forest and reading a book. . . . Every one of the thousand beech-leaves was scrupulously and minutely executed, every one of them had its individual solitary life. . . . Max never forgot the enchantment and terror he felt, when a few days later his father conducted him for the first time into the forest.” When he reached adulthood, Ernst had no admiration for his father’s art–and the feeling was mutual–but he did admire two of the chief exponents of that mystical German tradition, Albrecht Altdorfer and Caspar David Friedrich. And in his desire to create alternative, previously unseen realities, Ernst is in his way Friedrich’s modernist equivalent.

Like other modernists, Ernst worked in many styles early in his career. Expressionism–in which artists deliberately abandoned earlier naturalistic traditions, using color and space instead to represent subjective responses to their subject matter–informs Flowers and Fish (1916), a brightly colored melange, almost a grid, of fragments of both. But despite the contrasts in colors and shapes, the work is extraordinarily unified, perhaps because colors and shapes are repeated: it’s almost as if the flowers become fish which become solid colors which become flowers again. One of Ernst’s first sympathetic critics saw him “clearly aiming at a symbolic representation of the human aspect of animals and the animal nature of man, or perhaps the vegetative commonality of all living creatures, including plants.”

In the next few years Ernst’s art would express even more radical commonalities. In the collages, paintings, and photomontages of the 1920s he combined humans, animals, abstract shapes, machines, and machinelike geometrical shapes in images suggesting a continuous interchange of objects. In this dream world, solid forms and the everyday distinctions between entities are rubbed out, and all objects seem equal. The collage painting The Master’s Bedroom It’s Worth Spending a Night There (c. 1920) shows a long room whose depth is emphasized by the converging lines of the floorboards. Four creatures, including a whale, lie in the foreground, while near the rear stand a sheep and a bear. On the right are several articles of furniture; one of them, a chest, is pierced by a tree. The floorboard lines lead the eye smoothly from foreground to background; the larger size of the two background animals, especially the bear, and the attention-getting shapes of the smaller ones–the snake looks ready to strike–tend to give all the animals equal emphasis. The solid surfaces of the spare-looking room set off the figures and give them additional power; the tree growing through the chest suggests that the furniture too is related to nature.

At first glance it may not be apparent that this is a collage, but the objects have been taken from a page in a teaching-aids catalog Ernst found in 1919 (reproduced in the exhibit). The page is a kind of visual inventory, a vast collection of animals and objects with white space between them. Ernst has kept only a few of them but preserved their original spatial relationships, though they were not logically related in the catalog, superimposing them on a bedroom. Yet despite the “found” nature of this work, Ernst has created his own unity–a kind of mini Noah’s Ark, in the words of one writer. William A. Camfield, in his meticulous main essay in the beautifully illustrated catalog, cites other scholars on the importance of Ernst’s bedroom as his “laboratory and theater of reveries.” For the viewer of The Master’s Bedroom, the juxtaposition of the rectilinear room and ordinary furniture with wild animals suggests that placid everyday spaces can be the sites of out-of-control fantasies.

Ernst described his discovery of the teaching-aids catalog thus: “The absurdity of the collection confused the eye and mind, producing hallucinations and lending the objects depicted new and rapidly changing meanings. I suddenly felt my “visionary faculties’ so intensified that I began seeing the newly emerged objects against a new background.” Apparently Ernst suddenly saw each page of the catalog not as a collection of unrelated objects but as if it were a single unified image–a real visionary leap.

He used the catalog as the source for many other works, including Drum of the Infantry of the Celestial Army Represented Abreast in Their Sunday Best (c. 1920). The title is worth noting: like many of Ernst’s titles, it refers to specific objects in the work but makes little sense logically. At times the inscribed titles grow into absurd little poems: “The canalisation of refrigerated gas activates sputtering little numbers / The compressed heart flees in time / we lean against the delphic poet.” Like Ernst’s strange juxtapositions of objects, this language shouldn’t be rigidly interpreted; both are meant to be experienced in the same fevered, visionary spirit in which they were created, as spurs to the imagination.

Though much of Ernst’s art appeals to the viewer’s inner eye, some works refer to contemporary events. For Ernst and other artists of his generation the central traumatic event was World War I, an exceptionally bloody and useless conflict in which Ernst fought. The collage Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1920) begins with an aerial photograph of the city of Soissons. At the upper left is a strange figure, an amalgam of bird and airplane; running throughout the composition are rectangular shapes resembling railroad tracks but revealed on closer inspection to be the fronts of public buildings–the “ties” are columns. Three human figures in silhouette appear to be fleeing. One’s impression is of a metaphoric bombardment: a plane-beast attacking the city, huge objects falling on it, humanity fleeing. The Great War was the first in which airplanes were used, and as Camfield points out, the heavens, which had been “the exclusive realm of God and assorted superhuman creatures,” were invaded by “military man” who “wreaked destruction from above.” In earlier religious art, and in many of Ernst’s paintings as well, the sky is a solid color evoking either heaven or some more general liberating infinity; in this image, the sky is mostly a thick black.

Another photomontage, Health Through Sport (c. 1920), comments satirically on the contemporary cult of athletics, exploited a few years later by the Nazis. We see a mostly nude, well-proportioned man posing on a pedestal as if he were an artist’s model, a hockey stick in one hand and in the other a strange object (in fact an alligator brain) held up like a trophy. His head, however, is half feline, half insect.

Health Through Sport is actually a photographic enlargement of a photomontage: Ernst often photographed his collages in order to hide the visible edges of his images. By contrast Ernst’s contemporary, the great political photomontagist John Heartfield, generally left his seams visible: the viewer can thus see how the artist has put together his commentary and is more free to evaluate it rationally. But Ernst rarely revealed the sources of his images and was somewhat secretive about his methods, creating images that bore little trace of how they were made. The figure in Health Through Sport seems autonomous, evoking a mysterious new reality–less a collage than an actual being, at least in someone’s dream world. In the same way one senses that there actually is a whale on the floor in The Master’s Bedroom.

In his excellent introductory essay, Werner Spies asserts that virtually all of Ernst’s art can be characterized as collage. Certainly his art can’t be found in the quality of his painted surfaces or in the rhythm of the lines in his drawings. (There’s an old joke to the effect that the Surrealists had so many nightmares because they knew how badly they painted.) If every line, every gap between lines, every fragment of light in a Rembrandt canvas is a window onto something beyond the visible, the solidity of Ernst’s forms tends to stop the eye at the surface, where one notices collisions between forms, which is what stimulates the imagination. In the drawing Baudelaire Returns Late (1922) there’s no special visual music in the lines of the staircase or of Baudelaire’s suit; what’s interesting is the contrast between the bland stairway setting and the strange object hovering above the banister, which Baudelaire appears to be pulling at with a rope.

Ernst’s work is strongest when it evokes some magical alternative world as vivid and palpable as the one we know. And by constructing his world out of preexisting images–photographs, engravings, prints–Ernst succeeds in giving his dreams a certain solidity. Many of his works use frottage and grattage (a technique and word he coined). Frottage consists of placing paper or canvas over some textured surface and rubbing with pencil or paint, while in grattage multilayered paint is partially rubbed away while the canvas is held against a surface. The result in both is that areas of the work contain repeating patterns from actual surfaces. In The Beautiful Season (1925), a pencil drawing of a horselike creature, each part of the animal displays a different pattern of lines or smudges made by frottage. The patterns are vivid enough to suggest the touch of actual things but different enough to collide with, even contradict, one another. This is a horse assembled of thoroughly disparate parts. The physical presence of a series of forest scenes near the end of the exhibit is so strong that the works have an almost incantatory quality. Among them is The Forest (1925), in which Ernst used grattage to impart intensely tactile wood-grain patterns to several bare, leafless trees.

Camfield’s essay provides much fascinating information about Ernst’s connections to Dada and Surrealism. Several years before Andre Breton founded Surrealism, in 1924, he found in Ernst’s collages “totally new combinations with other elements.” Dada, which emerged from the nihilism spawned by World War I, was an antiart movement opposed to traditional forms; it seems to have helped Ernst to greater freedom. But though Ernst’s rejection of conventional aesthetics, his use of automatism, and his interest in the irrational linked him to these movements, thinking too much about these connections was for me not a fruitful approach to the work, which has its own potent, not logically explicable effect.

Similarly, Ernst’s early reading of Freud and the suggestiveness of many of his shapes and their juxtapositions have led many critics to develop Freudian interpretations of the works. But such specific readings destroy the viewer’s imaginative freedom, especially when they’re taken as the only readings. Ernst’s strange forests are most powerful when they’re seen to have some of the vividness and wholeness of actual forests–not when the trees are reduced to phallic symbols.

On the other hand, certain patterns do emerge in these works: each ultimately illuminates the others. There are a number of explicitly erotic images–couples embracing or copulating, suggestions of genitalia. The painting Long Live Love or Charming Countryside (1923) shows a nude woman and a mostly nude man in a tentative embrace, enclosed in what could be a hollowed-out cutaway tree trunk; the curves of the wood tightly match the curves of their bodies. The entwined undulations of this image are echoed, often abstractly, in many other images. The shapes in Scene of Harsh Eroticism (1927) are harder to identify, but the feeling is of inextricable entanglement.

Intertwined shapes and the suggestions of genitals are frequent. In an untitled painting from 1920 an abstract landscape against a black sky is filled with what appear to be strange plant forms; each has the quality of a newly minted being, yet each also suggests human genitalia. In fact these shapes are mostly the reproductive organs of plants taken from the teaching-aids catalog.

For Ernst eroticism was another way of entering the unconscious, of escaping from convention, and possibly of tweaking bourgeois taste. But he was aware that adult sexuality had its limits, as is apparent in the exquisite Approaching Puberty . . . (1921). A photograph of a nude, faceless girl floats in a blue space stratified by horizontal lines, suggesting water or the sky. A few strangely disparate forms surround the girl, and the short text at the bottom ends, “The gravitation of the undulations does not yet exist.” The title, this line, and the fact that the girl floats in space rather than standing on the ground–as most of Ernst’s figures do–suggests that he sees in pubescence a kind of weightless freedom. In a related but nonsexual image, an untitled c. 1921 collage, four schoolboys peer out of their classroom (from which a wall is missing) at a vast blue sky in which a hot-air balloon floats. A schoolmaster stands alone and ignored at his desk; next to him one of the boys balances a giant pencil on a pointer. What’s learned in school, Ernst seems to say, is far less important than visions of the sky.

Ernst may work in various media, but his methods are all related. The unexpected and inexplicable juxtapositions of the collages are realized in the paintings in a panoply of inexplicable, unfamiliar shapes. The way many such shapes resemble some strange combination of human, animal, vegetable, and machine forms is echoed in Ernst’s depictions of continuous transformation: the painting Child, Horse, Flower and Snake (1927) shows a linked chain of objects forming a loop whose ends almost meet. The background–green at the bottom, topped by a white wall–is covered with colored lines created by grattage, giving the setting a certain physicality, while a solid blue sky suggests the infinite. Each twisted shape in the loop seems on the brink of changing into its neighbor, or into something else: in this never-ending cycle, birth and rebirth are products not of biology but of the artist’s and viewer’s imaginations.

As a young man, Ernst was resolutely antiauthoritarian, proindividual, anti-institutional. One way of reading his constant invention and juxtaposition of forms is as a search for a way out of the given, the predictable, the materialist, the bourgeois–perhaps a way out of his family’s world. One painting, The Interior of the Sight (1922), seems to explicitly describe a passage out of bourgeois materialism. Thin lines converging across a thick black background suggest a tabletop, on which are placed a die and five glass vases, each bearing an elaborately colored but very conventional floral pattern. The viewer’s eye is led past the die, toward the pretty colors of the vases (though these are somewhat muted by the darkness visible through the glass), and along the converging lines of the tabletop, which lead toward the undifferentiated black at the top. Away from tableware, the picture seems to say, and toward the mental freedom of night. Out of such freedom emerge the beast-machine-human forms, some fabulous, some terrifying, of most of Ernst’s work. These forms seem outside human knowledge–the title of one of the night paintings is Man Shall Know Nothing of This–and ask less to be understood than to be felt.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christopher Gallagher, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.