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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)