Great Works: Shell Flowers By Max Ernst

Centre Pompidou, Paris

This painting seems to be afloat upon a space of hesitation and doubt, if not self-doubt. It chooses not to tell us in which direction we might go in pursuit of a consistent meaning. There is evidently nature present here, in one of its multifarious guises. But whose nature?

Nature is often a place of menace in Ernst's work. It looms over us. It beckons us into its darknesses like a thin, dry, crooked finger. Natural shapes, natural forms, modulate into menacing bird shapes, human shapes. It is a place profoundly unsettling, a threat to our peace of mind. This painting does not exactly frighten us, but it does unsettle us. It also causes us to reflect upon the different ways in which gardens have been represented by other groups of painters.

The Impressionists encouraged us to become immersed in the idea of the garden, to luxuriate in pure visual sensation. This painting seems both to encourage and then to repel that idea of immersion. Immersion would be illusory, if not dangerously sentimental, it seems to be warning us. We have no idea quite how deep-down our eyes are expected to travel. Are these shell flowers afloat, suspended, on a surface of some kind?

There is at first glance an illusion of the surface of a pool or a pond across which they might be quite carelessly drifting, jostling together, crowding each other and then, at the breath of a breeze, drifting away again like pinballs in a pinball machine. Something akin to one of Monet's lily ponds at Giverny, for example, that trapped place invented by an ageing man, in which he could paint and dream about lily shapes which finally blur into cataractic hauntings of themselves – as we can see in that great late work at the Orangerie in Paris.

That is clearly not the case here. In fact, what is going on behind these floating shell flowers appears to give the lie to such an idea. These flower shapes are set against a much odder ground, which has a sharpness and even a factitious, man-made severity about it – the richness of those reds, those undulating bars of blackness, put us in mind of a Rothko. That strong horizontal line near the top of the painting suggests that we may have reached the edge of a flat surface.

These eerily lit shell flowers pose problems, too, in our attempt to define the nature of what they are exactly. They seem to be a finely balanced amalgam of shell and flower, both thinly brittle and finely soft. Their corrugated texture is suggestive of the regular scoring of metal by a tool. The texture itself looks graphic and of the surface, and our partial acceptance that this might be so prevents us from settling into the notion of a three-dimensional shell flower.

And does nature produce flowers that possess such textures anyway? Surely not. What is more, their centres – well, the centres of some of them at least – return us to the idea of a sexualised softness, a lippy vaginal promise which seems to be quite at odds with that metallic texture. Many of them are not entire. They are bitten-off fragments of themselves. These fragments encourage us to believe that we are staring at representations of objects in two dimensions, and not three. In fact, the more we study these floating flowers, the more they all come to seem like elements of a collage, less and less in touch with what lies beneath them.

This garden is the garden of a mind in which everything is inclining to float away, rather deliciously, rather hallucinogenically, from everything else.

About the artist: Max Ernst (1891-1976)

The ceaselessly experimental work of the German-French painter Max Ernst is marked from first to last by an air of strangeness and unreality. Many of his paintings draw on troubling memories of childhood – forest scenes; a bird called Loplop. Part of the Surrealist group for many years, Ernst broke with it in 1938, but his work underwent no dramatic transfiguration as a result of that change of heart. He continued to be overshadowed by the strange overshadowings of his own life.

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