The importance of being Ernst

The Surrealists have always been given a hard time. But why, asks George Melly, has Max Ernst suffered more than Dali, Magritte or Mir?

The car drove through the snow-covered Yorkshire countryside under a midday sky the colour of lead. Eventually we turned off into the former estate of Bretton Hall. The house itself is now a college, but most of the 100 acres that surround it are the home of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

It was Pete Murray, its executive director, who was at the wheel. He'd picked me up at Wakefield and we were headed for an exhibition of Max Ernst's sculpture which I was to open.

I was relieved to hear that, with the exception of two larger pieces - and they were visible through the windows - it was all under cover. I'd been to the park before in summer and the large, sometimes vast, works looked wonderful against shimmering leaves, sky and water. But now it was like an Arctic safari with ossified mammoths - impressive, but best appreciated from inside a car with the heating on.

In the old Dear Park, an adjacent 96-acre park within a park, is a permanent exhibition of works by Henry Moore, the local boy made good in a big way, and perhaps the reason for this location for the sculpture park in the first place.

I have been critical of Moore's later public work, but most of the pieces here are well chosen, and all of them, like the sculptures throughout the park (whether permanent or on loan), are beautifully sited. Nor should it be forgotten that Moore's foundation, together with other bodies both public and private, is financially very supportive.

Henry Moore, for a short period during the late Thirties, was, like Max Ernst, a member of the Surrealist movement. This was, of course, before he carved the Northampton Mother and Child, something of a contrast to Ernst's early picture of Mary giving the child Jesus a good smacking.

As we drove along I reflected on the comparative obscurity of Ernst. Of the foremost famous Surrealists - Dali, Magritte, Mir, Ernst - Ernst is certainly the least well-known. His importance historically, his position as the father of Surrealist painting, is acknowledged, certainly, but his retrospectives tend to be reviewed with only qualified respect. Why?

There was a time when all Surrealism was dismissed as dated rubbish. This time lasted from the post-war Forties to the beginning of the Sixties. The re-assessment came from various quarters. The "love generation" found Dali "trippy". Pop artists claimed (much to his rage) Magritte as a father figure. Mir seemed to relate to minimal abstraction, yet somehow Ernst seemed an outsider. Of course, the honours came, the exhibitions and the doctorates, but not the general acclaim, and by now Surrealism is cooling again. It is part of history, its last participants dying off.

I suppose for aesthetes and Surrealist purists, it was the over-elaboration of Ernst's technique during the later Thirties, an attempt to out-Dali Dali, that began the decline in interest (a friend of mine called it "the Spinach period"), and from then on, although he painted some remarkable pictures, there was an increasing lack of tension. Happily married, loaded with honours and financially secure, he can hardly be blamed if his demons became imps. Dali, after all, became a hideous caricature of himself, Magritte repetitious and flash, Mir a splosher, yet none of their reputations has suffered as Ernst's has.

He himself always put down his relative unpopularity to a youth of what he called "inspiration to order". Collage (sticking), frottage (rubbing) and grattage (scraping) were automatic means to trap his vision, and he believed that the public felt cheated when presented with artificial methods in place of manual skills. This is partially true even today. But I think that, unlike Dali, Mir or Magritte, it was more Ernst's protean nature and shifts of style that confused people.

Most popular artists are those whose work can be recognised across a room, yet Ernst never left his "inspiration to order" to its own devices. He invariably teased, attacked or seduced his raw material until it came under his command. He was always the sorcerer, never the apprentice.

Now I have, since adolescence, admired Ernst, and I trust that his familiar Lop Lop, the Head of the Birds, will hover over my death bed. It was one reason I had been asked to open this exhibition; the other was that I'm best known as a jazz singer, and, as Dr Johnson said, people will travel miles to see a woman preaching - not any more they won't - or a dog walking on its hind-legs ("It is not done well; but you are surprised to see it done at all"), and so it proved here. The handsome main gallery was gratifyingly full of people.

In the large gallery the walls were hung with those extraordinary frottages (originally published in a limited portfolio called "Natural History" in 1926). They developed from Ernst's inexplicable excitement provoked by the graining of some well-scrubbed floorboards in an inn, and his use of a wax crayon to transfer them to paper in the manner of a brass rubbing. Extending this method to include diverse textures, Ernst exploited this particular form of "inspiration to order" to reveal birds, monsters and rather sinister vegetation - in this case providing a fine landscape to show off the sculpture. Behind a partition were photographs of Ernst, that beautiful bird of prey, either alone, or with friends and lovers, by Man Ray, Lee Miller and other Surrealists of the lens.

The sculpture itself, 62 pieces in all, is perhaps the least known facet of Ernst's work. They are, however, playful and are more consistent and simple than his paintings. This makes them comparatively and instantly accessible - Max at play. The sculptures date from 1929 (the earliest) to 1973 (the last) and reveal a consistent language. His source, as a sculptor, was the great Brancusi. His technique he gained, for a time at first hand, from Giacometti, but his inspiration throughout derived from tribal objects, the magic fetishes of many diverse "primitive" sources whose function was magic rather than aesthetic. The Aztecs, the Eskimos, the bronzes of Benin, the diverse traditions of the Native American nations all contributed, but are absorbed and transformed by Ernst's imagination.

So I rose to speak with the intention of trying to impose my belief that Ernst deserved Andre Breton's description of him as "the most magnificently haunted mind in Europe", and that he had achieved his aim to become "a magician and to find the myth of his time". Meanwhile, in that Yorkshire park, the Anxious Friend, the Young Man with a Beating Heart, the Born Swimmer and the Lunar Asparagus hold the fort.

n Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, West Bretton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire (01924 830579)

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution