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
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

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.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?