Max Ernst


Ernst: Chance, Collage and the Study of Freud

Max Ernst is considered one of the founders of the Dada movement.

When one chooses to look at a piece of art from a Freudian viewpoint, most times the comparison is rather far flung and many times the work may have had nothing to do with Freud in the mind of the artist that wrote it; however, Max Ernst was a student of psychology in the early twentieth century and studied Freud.  Many of the components of Ernst’s art can also be seen through modern science and psychology, such as theories of Freud: chance, the subconscious, condensation and juxtaposition and then these ideas can be applied to the evaluation of his works, Oedipus Rex and The Hat Makes the Man.
 The first idea to be discussed is that of chance.  Within Dada, chance played a major role, and for Ernst it was important as well.  Chance can be said to be the act of employing random, accidental stimuli to awaken patterns within the subconscious of the artist and in turn the artist can record these patterns at the conscience level.   Chance is a method of arriving at some sort of destination or conclusion without allowing oneself to color the work with the faults of human perception and taint it with quotidian ideas of what reality is and should be.  He was trying to find a technique of representation beyond techniques of the time and this did not simply determine the tone of his work, but it became an in disposable part of the work.   Ernst was trying to see the world with “closed eyes” , representing his wishes to tap into the underlying meanings behind the real: to dig into the subconscious and express that super reality, which to the Dadaists and even more so to the Surrealists, would be a higher vision of truth.  This higher vision of truth was almost always seen to come from uncontrollable sources, such as the subconscious mind, desires, dreams and such, which are all very much a part of Freud.
The idea of chance is a key element in Ernst’s collages.  The collage is an arrangement of found objects, found meaning randomly collected, and then are assembled in a sort of “chance meeting” often in a strange sort of association that tends to represent the subconscious, which was a key part of many of Freud’s works.  Ernst was a student of abnormal psychology from 1910 to 1914 at the University of Bonn and he has been noted as reading many of Freud’s works in Bonn during this time and among the two most influential were Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and The Interpretation of Dreams.   Chance is actually a vehicle through which the unconscious mind can be explored and it also served as a way for the Ernst and other artists in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements to access forms and themes which would attempt to dissolve ties to the material, representative world of the old art.
A common theme running through Ernst’s works is that of a polarization of meanings and objects and a condensation of meaning, which occurs through that process or polarizing.  It is the association between the constructive and the destructive, the rational and irrational, the beautiful and the ugly, the dead and alive, sight and not seeing which defines the experience of the juxtaposition of Ernst.   The juxtaposition of disparate images has an intense visual presence and influence in many of the collages.  The association between objects like birds and people have a connotation that is not easily understandable, but at the same time is related enough to evoke emotions such as terror, disbelief, and confusion.  These images also evoke an idea of the dream and the subconscious mind.
Condensation is a mechanism proposed by Freud by which condenses multiple words most of his work.  Using condensation, Ernst took images that did not expressly belong together and he forced them into strange associations and juxtaposed them to bring new meanings to the materials and images involved.  This is much like Freud did when he proposed the idea of condensation, but he was using word associations.  According to Freud, condensation is the pushing together of two or more words into a new word of phrase so that each original elements keeps its own nature while still playing off the others.   A good example would be the word “alcoholidays”, which is an association between the holiday season and the secular drunkenness through which they are approached today.   Ernst took this idea and used it to create intense images that interact in extraordinary ways.
The first work to be looked at is that of Ernst’s Oedipus Rex.  This work is innately Freudian just in name, let alone in content.  The Oedipus complex is one of the most well recognized components of Freudian theory and it is seen in this work names after it in many ways.  The first is through the process of condensation.  This can be seen as the bird headed man, which shows up in many of Ernst’s images: the association in this image between the man and the bird is the desire of man to be free from the inhibitions imposed upon him by society, and despite the fact that these two still retain their separate identities, they are consistent with Freud’s ideas.   In the case of this work, the head is removed from the body, showing a detachment from true feeling and true understanding of life.  Another Freudian idea is the use of the joke, which is seen in the treatment of several of the objects in this work.  Such as the contrast and juxtaposition of the wall, the over-sized fingers, upside down eyes on the birds, and the balloon in the aft of the painted collage.   Several other associations relating this work to Freud can be drawn as well.
This work has intense sexual undercurrents.  The nut represents the female and the crack in the nut is a symbol for the vulva.   The cracking of the nut by the hands of a male is a metaphor for sexual intercourse and also gender roles in traditional patriarchal cultures.  The idea of the treatment of woman and of her place within society is also visible in another piece by Ernst, The Tottering Woman.  In this piece, he addresses the constraints in which woman are held in the world and the patriarchy that she must deal with on a daily basis.  It also touches upon the objectification of woman as well.  Hoffman also theorizes that the squeezing of the nut has implications of sadomasochistic roles as the nut is being dominated and crushed, the spike is punishing the hand equally and finally, once forced open, the “nut” could always snap back shut, injuring the index finger and thereby is a signifier of neurotic sexual attachment.   The bird head in towards the back of the picture plane is tethered by some sort of rope, which could be seen as societal restrictions on deviant sexuality and possibly is a reaction to the taboo associated with incest.  Additionally, the arrow as it pierces the shell of the nut could be seen as a phallic signifier or also as a representation for the idea of love and then a refutation of the existence of love within the constraints of sexual desire and sexuality.  The imagery in this piece by Ernst is intensely psychosexual in nature and content and can be seen mostly in those terms.
In defense of picking Oedipus Rex to write about in the context of collage, it is true that it is an oil painting, but its imagery was taken from print sources and then was transposed into the work by the act of painting them.  The nut squeezing image was taken from an article entitled “Experience sur l’ elasticite, faite avec une noix,” from the popular 19th century French Magazine La Nature.
The second artwork, The Hat Makes the Man, is very much a discourse on the effects of socio-economic factors and sexuality.  In terms of referring to socio-economic status, the hats pictured in the collage are represent of different classes of people.  There are hats that are indicative of what a farmer would wear in the fields as sun protection, hats that resemble what a sailor would wear, hats that are casual wear from gentry, top hats for formal occasions, simple hats for poor industrial workers, and a hat for about every “type of man”.  The stacked arrangement of these hats could be seen as a hierarchy of status and of the lack of freedom and social mobility that was being slowly destroyed during this time period.
The deeper psychological meaning of the hats is much more Freudian in nature.  It is a discussion of the importance of fashion on sexuality.  The brightly colored lines and columns are ironically sexual when put against the hats cut from a catalogue.   The columns or tubes could also be seen as a representation of the vagina.  A translation of the writing in the bottom corner of the work reveals an interesting meaning that Ernst envisioned for the collage.  It reads, “the hat makes the man, the style is the tailor,” this simple saying can be seen as a suggestion of the phallic nature of man and how the hat functions in that sphere.  Ernst sees modern man as a sexuality that is repressed and that this comes through his clothes no matter the circumstance.   The phallic nature of the hat only serves to reinforce the idea of the completion of man is his sexuality and his penis.  The hat is a signifier of man, while there are men’s hats and women’s hats; they serve as a differentiator of gender and sexual roles.  The entire work is an interpretation of what Freud said about fashion as totem’s and the taboo of society.   This conclusion supports the thesis of Ernst’s works being intensely psychological in their basis and content and supports the idea that Freudian psychology was a strong base for Ernst in his use of collage and of art in general.
It was this exploration by Ernst of sexuality in late Dada and Early Surrealism that would lead to some of the intensely perverse, deviant images created later, such as the mannequins of Man Ray and the doll’s Balmer along with so many of the paintings done by artists such as Dali.  Ernst laid the basis for these later developments with his explorations in chance, the subconscious, and condensation joined with juxtaposition as well as with his use of sexuality and gender within a framework of Freud.  His collages, which were his attempt at abandoning the traditionally artist creation and his work with found images, always working to keep their unique meaning would later be highly influential.
Books on Max Ernst:
  • Ernst, by Jose Maria Faerna. Economical monograph from Abradale's Great Modern masters series.

  • Max Ernst, by Edward Quinn. The definitive monograph, hardcover in a slipcase mirrors the quality of the text and reproductions.

  • Max Ernst: 1891-1976, by Urlich Bischoff. From Taschen, the best value for anintroductory monograph on the life and work of Max Ernst.

  • Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism, by William Camfield. Fascinating study of the development of Dada into Surrealism, exemplified by the carrer of Max Ernst.

  • Une Semaine De Bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage, by Max Ernst. One of the key artistic works of Max Ernst.

Max Ernst Images on the Web
The Beautiful Season
The Entire City
The Eye of Silence
Flying Geese
The Hat Makes the Man
The Hundred-headless Woman Opens her August Sleeve
Napoleon in the Wilderness
Approaching Puberty or The Pleiads
The Robing of the Bride
Snow Flowers
Ubu Imperator
Le vent se repose jaune
The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter
The Wavering Woman

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