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Troy Doyle

 Max Ernst and Europe after the Rain II

 

 

Max Ernst’s Europe after the Rain (fig. 1) is a quintessential surrealistic masterpiece painted by a recognized genius of the surrealist genre. We can readily see that Ernst’s own biography and personal experiences are important in how we interpret the work. So, I will begin with a historical survey of Europe after the Rain II as inextricably combined with Ernst’s life. Ernst sometimes offered his own interpretational ideas about Europe after the Rain II, but these were fairly few or somewhat indirect. After discussing historical and stylistic material leading to Ernst’s painting of Europe after the Rain II. I will offer my own analysis of Europe after the Rain II along with ideas suggested by Ernst and some important critics of the painting. (1)

Born in Brül, Germany in 1891, Max Ernst completed gymnasium and studied philosophy and art history at the University of Bonn. While at university, he first began reading Freud and observing the artwork of psychiatric patients. After viewing a 1912 exhibition in Cologne of works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch and Picasso he decided to be a painter. During his first trip to Paris, Ernst met Robert Delaunay and Guillaume Apollinaire and with the assistance of Auguste Macke he exhibited his first works there in 1913. (2)

 

Figure 1

Europe after the Rain II, 1940-42

Oil on canvas. 54 x 146 cm.

Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

 

Ernst’s association with Macke contributed to an interest in Expressionism, but Ernst soon abandoned the style for Dada. His principle Dada works were collages. Ernst adopted Dada with the German political revolt against traditional cultural expression around him and those whom he knew. His ongoing thought drawn from observing mental patients and his own war experiences were an even greater importance. (3)

Just as World War I was beginning, Ernst was encouraged to remain in Paris by Hans Arp, who would later be a close friend and colleague. But rather than the prospect of being sent to a French concentration camp, Ernst decided to accept his draft into the German Army. (4) “World War I proved to be a defining experience for Ernst ... (who) perceived his civilization as absurd for setting off the bloodbath, and once referred to the war as ‘the dirtiest of tricks.’” (5)  Ernst’s war service “in the trenches” obviously affected him deeply. He became incredibly more alienated and pessimistic in his outlook from this point forward.

After the war, Ernst returned to his artist friends with whom he collaborated in exhibiting various Dada works inspired by the eclipse of traditional European civilization around them. Ernst and his colleagues were less concerned with creating new styles as they felt the need to incorporate their experiences into art which reflected their sense of nihilism. Soon, however, even the absurdities of Dada seemed exhausted as a source of expression, and the beginnings of Surrealism emerged.

 Surrealism is characterized by the representation of abstract images, often dream-like, drawn from the human unconscious or subconscious. Usually these are connected with inner human thoughts and are then translated into works representing this thought abstractly or with varied illusionistic images diverging from reality in arrangement of subjects, portrayal of subjects, and unusual juxtaposition of often disparate objects. Generally visual images are shown in distorted and ambiguous ways. (6)

Ernst was influenced by other surrealists who in turn drew upon his work in a period where many surrealist artists came into contact with one another. Following World War I and into the World War II period, Ernst associated with many other surrealists such as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, and Salvador Dali. They developed their style collectively trying to make arresting artistic statements. (7)

Rather than trying to communicate a sort of automatist inner reality in works like many surrealists, Ernst departed from his peers in that he often tried to codify and reconcile emotions, intellectual ideas, and intuition more directly in his paintings. He was thoroughly surreal in his use of inner content, but he was much more self reflective and critical of his own works and how they corresponded to inner experience. Most of the other surrealists paid less scrutiny to what was produced and focused almost exclusively on what they experienced beforehand as subjective, spontaneous perceptions of reality.(8)

Ernst was also unique in experimenting with varied methods of visual representation. He made use of collage and illustrations in early works. Some of his earliest surrealist works used frottage, a type of tracing of a textured substance such as wood grain and incorporating it into paintings in varied ways. Many of Ernst’s works, including Europe after the Rain II were paintings. In this and other works he used a technique called decalcomania which involved applying paper or other material to paintings while still wet and then pulling the covering material away to distort the painting. Oscar Dominguez and other surrealists used the technique. Ernst adapted the technique to oil paintings using glass to cover the painting before removing it leaving highly altered images. Europe after the Rain II is one of the most notable but not the only one of these works. Where other surrealists were content to leave the works as they were after removing the paper or glass leaving the product untouched as a more direct inner manifestation, and Ernst added further painted details to the product. (9)  Ernst was also known for trying various media which even involved sculpture in his later years.

In 1933, the year Hitler rose to power, Ernst created Europe after the Rain I (fig. 2). It shows a map of Europe with distorted edges to represent the national conflicts and shifting boundaries and allegiances. Already, we see that Ernst was not only inspired by his subconscious, but also engaging in criticism of European politics and perhaps the broader culture as well.

 Ernst’s work was deemed political treason and his works were banned in Germany. He was wanted by the Gestapo, and so he took refuge in France where he could work and freely work with other artists. When World War II began, Ernst was sent to a French concentration camp for aliens. He escaped and was returned to these camps a number of times. He began painting Europe after the Rain II in 1940 and was released when his marriage to a younger French woman was discovered. In his life, Ernst was married and divorced several times and had innumerable romantic exploits. (10)

Figure 2

Europe after the Rain I, 1933

Oil and gypsum on plywood. 101 x 149 cm.

Private collection

After his release, Ernst went to Air-Bel, a French artists’ conclave during the war years. There Varian Fry, an American, was responsible for helping many European artists including Ernst escape from the Nazis. With the additional help of wealthy heiress Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst did escape to the United States. (11)  His flight was fraught with intrigue involving the intercession of his son in America to help from a Spanish border guard. He only completed Europe after the Rain II once in America. After marrying and divorcing Guggenheim, Ernst continued working in the American Southwest, where the very geography he encountered influenced the evolution and perception of his work. Eventually, after political matters were drastically changed, Ernst eventually returned to Europe. Ernst moved to Paris in 1953 and continued to work until his death in 1976. (12)

We have already seen how Ernst’s life and his understandable reaction to war-torn Europe in the early twentieth century influenced his internal perceptions as well as artistic expression. Now, we should focus a bit more closely upon the technical elements of Europe after the Rain II, undoubtedly representative of much of Ernst’s life and work.

In this painting, we are confronted with a landscape view of a ravaged place. Evident material destruction is combined with organic growth and life throughout the foreground. Linear elements are intertwined with curves and twists in such a way that we wonder what are features of the landscape, features of destruction and desolation, and features indicating surviving life. Many features with which we are confronted are ambiguous as to whether they represent human and animal features such as faces and bodies, geological elements as mountains and glyphs, or either surviving overrun wild vegetation or its remains. No doubt the Ernst’s masterful use of decalcomania is responsible for our confusion. "Here the decalcomania technique has produced a spongy, rotting landscape redolent of decay."(13)  In the wake of massive destruction, we seem to see so many elements which could be one thing, another, or perhaps both. For example, we may see faces and human features, their mere appearance in the horrible scene, or perhaps the conflation Ernst wished to express purposefully in confusion and Ernst even added new perceptions of the work over time.

Bisecting the picture plane is a tall structure in cooler gray, greenish, and blue hues fading into black. Could this be the bomb whose explosion has caused the "European" destruction with only its twisted metal exploded remains left, or is this object part of destroyed man-made building? In either case, it seems to represent the dramatic intrusion of human technology either as attempted civilized construction or remains of intentional cultural yet quite uncivilized destructiveness. In my observation it appears the remains of an exploded bomb.

Next to this structure we see the back of a woman whose lower body seems geologically constrained in the scene with the appearance of rock below her back (fig.3). However, she is quite predominant in that we can distinguish her dress, hat, back, and face. Her hair seems to move in the wind. She gazes away from us toward the middle and background. The distant mountains and occupation of much negative space with rather ordinary blue sky and white clouds suggests large dimensions and that there is a great mass of water or land unseen by us but seen by the woman in the middle ground to which she gazes. The woman could be highly cultured humanity, old Europe itself, with her proper hat and what appears formal dress still intact looking away from the destruction around her but also unmercifully trapped in her place by the rocky appearance of her lower body.

Figure 3

Europe after the Rain II, detail.

 

Next to her is another large lifelike figure, a helmeted bird. Birds often appear in Ernst’s work. Here the bird-man is attached by a strand of something to what appears to be the remains of a structure. His legs however are clearly free. He could be the somewhat emasculated persona of war and aggression as he turns toward the woman. He too, however is trapped in the ruins. Many other large and small figures are seen in this frenzied mass of animal, vegetable, and mineral confusion. On either side of the gray structure we see both bright neutral colors as well as warmer colors suggesting the life of its loss.

The techniques Ernst employed here can be seen in many works from this period, however, "[a]s an indictment of war it works much more effectively than the earlier Angel of Hearth and Home" (14)(fig. 4). Concurring and expanding on criticism of Europe after the Rain II, Gimferrer sees eroticism in the bird and woman figures which seem out of place here unlike other paintings he compares with this one. (15) The bird figure seems relatively harmless and only some what engaged with the woman who is, unlike the women of other paintings of this period not shown with flesh tones and sumptuous adornment as with the women in The Robing of the Bride (fig. 5). Rather, she seems in shades of black and in her stance of looking resolutely away to mourn and denounce her surroundings.

Figure 4

The Angel of Hearth and Home, 1937

Oil on canvas. 53 x 73 cm.

Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich, Germany.

Figure 5

The Robing of the Bride, 1940

Oil on canvas. 130 x 96 cm.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy.

 

While we have mentioned Ernst’s engagement with his production, contrasted to an extent with other surrealists, even he admits the multiple interpretations of Europe after the Rain II. In Arizona, long after painting this work, he would first glimpse the rocky mountainous rock outcroppings of the American southwest and exclaimed that what he saw here for the first time was actually what he had earlier painted (fig. 6) in the rocky protrusions of Europe after the Rain II. (16)  I find this amazing in that Ernst left Europe after the Rain II finished, as I assume he did with other surrealist creations, yet still incorporated further lived experience with his art and its interpretation.


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 6

Europe after the Rain II, detail.

 

ENDNOTES

(1) The title of this painting is often confused with Europe after the Rain I produced in 1933.  Sometimes Europe after the Rain II (1940-1942) is simply referred to as Europe after the Rain.  Other variations in usage exist.  I will include the title with the appropriate Roman numeral for clarity.

(2) Sidra Stich, Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art (Abbeville Press: New York, 1990), 240.

(3) Ian Turpin, Ernst (London: Phaidon Press, 1993).

(4) Stich.

(5) Ernst, [n. a.], Great Modern Masters series, José Maria Faerna, General Ed., Trans. by Alberto Curotto (New York: Abrams, 1997), 7.

(6) We can say somewhat simply that Ernst tended away from "organic Surrealism in which figures or other objects may be suggested but are rarely explicit. . . ." toward what Dali would embody so popularly: "Magic Realism—that is, precisely delineated, recognizable objects, distorted and transformed, but nevertheless presented with a ruthless realism that throws their newly acquired fantasy into shocking relief." H. H. Arnason, Rev. Author, Peter Kalb, 5th ed., History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 258.

(7) Ruth Brandon, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945 (New York: Grove Press, 1999).

(8) Turpin.

(9) Stuart Nolan, "The Enduring Significance of the Work of Max Ernst" World Socialist Web Site, October 1, 1998, Internet at http://www.wsws.org/arts/1998/oct1998/erns-o01.shtml, accessed February 25, 2005.

(10) Sheila Isenberg, A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry (New York: Random House, 2001).

(11) Ibid.; Even though Ernst’s relationships with women seem exploitive, I have found no instance in which they complained. As Brandon says, "Women played a very particular place in the Surrealist world-view. . . .[They] attended surrealist gatherings mostly as companions. They were there to facilitate the lives of the (male) artists. . . Living with a rich woman was one way around the problem of work. . ." Yet, "more importantly, woman was an icon, the incarnation of . . . mad love, the nearest man could approach to the wonderful—that ultimate goal." (pp. 383-384). We may justly doubt however that Ernst’s Europe after the Rain II could have been preserved and even created without much dependence on the women with whom he was romantically involved.

(12) Turpin.

(13) Ibid., 20.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Pere Gimferrer, Max Ernst (New York: Rizzoli, 1983).

(16) Max Ernst, film by Peter Schamoni, R. M. Arts Portrait of an Artist series, Film München, 1991.  Audiotape commentary by Ernst himself.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnason, H. H., rev. author Peter Kalb, 5th ed., History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall, 2003.

Ruth Brandon, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945. New York. Grove Press, 1999.

Ernst, [n. a.], Great Modern Masters series, José Maria Faerna, general ed., trans. by Alberto Curotto, New York, Abrams, 1997.

Gimferrer, Pere, Max Ernst, New York, Rizzoli, 1983.

Isenberg, Sheila, A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry, New York. Random House, 2001.

Nolan, Stuart, "The Enduring Significance of the Work of Max Ernst," World Socialist Web Site, Oct. 1, 1998, Internet, http://www.wsws.org/arts/1998/oct1998/erns-o01.shtml, accessed Feb. 25, 2005.

Schamoni, Peter, film, Max Ernst, R. M. Arts Portrait of an Artist series, Film München, 1991.

Stich, Sidra, Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art, Abbeville Press, New York, 1990.

Turpin, Ian, Ernst, London, Phaidon Press, 1993.

 

Troy Doyle is a distance education Art History major at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, who resides in Gainesville, Florida.  He holds degrees in music and education, and is also finishing his thesis in theology.