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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?