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Culture news, 09.12.2005 16:05

Surrealism at the Hermitage

surrealizm A new exhibition at the Hermitage showcases three paintings by Max Ernst from the Northern Rhine-Westphalia collection (Dßsseldorf). Ernst (1891-1976), a German-born French artist, was the pioneer of the ‘frottage’ surrealist technique. The three selected paintings demonstrate the artist’s development of his unique and groundbreaking style. They include “Carmagnole of Love” (1926), “After Us – Maternity” (1927) and the supremely hallucinogenic “Landscape with Sprouting Grain” (1936), which was produced in the years when surrealism gained a widespread, international following.

During World War I Ernst served in the German army. After the war, filled with new ideas from the horrors he had witnessed, he formed the Cologne-based branch of the German Dadaist group along with French artist Jean Arp and German poet, artist and social activist Alfred Grßnwald. The group rejected the prevailing, traditional standards of art by expressing nihilism, deliberate irrationality and cynicism in their poetry, theater and graphic design.

However, two years later, in 1921, Ernst returned to the artistic community in Montparnasse, Paris, where he would become one of the most prominent figures of the surrealist art movement.

Originally spearheaded by Andre Breton and Luis Aragon, surrealism actually began with language and texts. Its philosophy was opposed to traditional literature. A key principle was that of automatism, which dictated that works of art should only be created as “spontaneous writing, drawing or such practice without conscious aesthetic or moral self-censorship”.

However, such a code also planted seeds of doubt among surrealist painters, including Breton, that their artistic philosophy, due to the developmental work in the painting process, was impossible to put into practice. Ernst was the one who dispelled their apprehensions.

In 1925 he invented frottage, a technique that involves making a “rubbing” over a textured surface with a pencil or other drawing tool. The result can then be left as it is or used as a basis for further refinement. The next year he collaborated with Joan Mir× on designs for the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

As the exhibition and the works of other artists show, surrealist painting was somewhere in between the tangible and the abstract, a kind of synthesis or specific syntax which blends the two opposites on canvas. The paintings remain figurative while being inspired by pure psychic automatism.

Surrealism was not considered as an alternative or opposition to reality; on the contrary, it expanded reality at the expense of the unconscious world. The most common inspirations came from dreams, a certain childish outlook, and the emotional candor of mentally ill people.

One of the pieces exhibited “After Us – Maternity” carries out an anthropomorphic transformation in which the figure of the Blessed Virgin is interpreted in the form of birds.

The exhibition booklet explains that this substitution of the human figure with birds can be attributed to childhood trauma suffered by the artist. Such Freudian psychoanalysis is a common explanation of the creative mysteries behind surrealist art.

“Three pictures of Max Ernst” runs through 19 February 2006 at the Hermitage, room 334 (third floor).


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