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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need