Posts Tagged ‘psychoanalysis

02
Sep
13

Exhibition: ‘Max Ernst’ at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland

Exhibition dates: 26th May – 8th September 2013

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Many thankx to the Fondation Beyeler for allowing me to publish the images in the posting. Please click on the images for a larger version of the art.

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Max Ernst. The Entire City La ville entière 1935/36

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Max Ernst
The Entire City
La ville entière
1935/36
Oil on canvas
60 cm x 81 cm
Kunsthaus Zurich
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Kunsthaus Zurich

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Max Ernst.  Nature at Dawn (Evensong) La nature à l’aurore (Chant du soir) 1938

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Max Ernst
Nature at Dawn (Evensong)
La nature à l’aurore (Chant du soir)

1938
Oil on canvas
81 cm x 100 cm
Private collection
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich

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Max Ernst. 'Painting for Young People' 1943

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Max Ernst
Painting for Young People
1943
Oil on canvas
60.5 cm x 76.5 cm
The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin

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Max Ernst. Woman, Old Man, and Flower Weib, Greis und Blume 1924

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Max Ernst
Woman, Old Man, and Flower
Weib, Greis und Blume
1924
Oil on canvas
97 cm x 130 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: © 2013, Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

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Max Ernst. 'Oedipus Rex' 1922

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Max Ernst
Oedipus Rex
1922
Oil on canvas
93 cm x 102 cm
Private collection
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich

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This work is innately Freudian just in name, let alone in content. The Oedipus complex is one of the most well recognized components of Freudian theory and it is seen in this work names after it in many ways. The first is through the process of condensation. This can be seen as the bird headed man, which shows up in many of Ernst’s images: the association in this image between the man and the bird is the desire of man to be free from the inhibitions imposed upon him by society, and despite the fact that these two still retain their separate identities, they are consistent with Freud’s ideas. In the case of this work, the head is removed from the body, showing a detachment from true feeling and true understanding of life. Another Freudian idea is the use of the joke, which is seen in the treatment of several of the objects in this work. Such as the contrast and juxtaposition of the wall, the over-sized fingers, upside down eyes on the birds, and the balloon in the aft of the painted collage. Several other associations relating this work to Freud can be drawn as well.

This work has intense sexual undercurrents. The nut represents the female and the crack in the nut is a symbol for the vulva. The cracking of the nut by the hands of a male is a metaphor for sexual intercourse and also gender roles in traditional patriarchal cultures. The idea of the treatment of woman and of her place within society is also visible in another piece by Ernst, The Tottering Woman. In this piece, he addresses the constraints in which woman are held in the world and the patriarchy that she must deal with on a daily basis. It also touches upon the objectification of woman as well. Hoffman also theorizes that the squeezing of the nut has implications of sadomasochistic roles as the nut is being dominated and crushed, the spike is punishing the hand equally and finally, once forced open, the “nut” could always snap back shut, injuring the index finger and thereby is a signifier of neurotic sexual attachment. The bird head in towards the back of the picture plane is tethered by some sort of rope, which could be seen as societal restrictions on deviant sexuality and possibly is a reaction to the taboo associated with incest. Additionally, the arrow as it pierces the shell of the nut could be seen as a phallic signifier or also as a representation for the idea of love and then a refutation of the existence of love within the constraints of sexual desire and sexuality. The imagery in this piece by Ernst is intensely psychosexual in nature and content and can be seen mostly in those terms.

In defense of picking Oedipus Rex to write about in the context of collage, it is true that it is an oil painting, but its imagery was taken from print sources and then was transposed into the work by the act of painting them. The nut squeezing image was taken from an article entitled “Experience sur l’elasticite, faite avec une noix,” from the popular 19th century French Magazine La Nature.

Anon from Ernst: Chance, Collage and the Study of Freud

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Max Ernst. The Fireside Angel (The Triumph of Surrealism) L’ange du foyer (Le triomphe du surréalisme) 1937

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Max Ernst
The Fireside Angel (The Triumph of Surrealism)
L’ange du foyer (Le triomphe du surréalisme)
1937
Oil on canvas
114 cm x 146 cm
Private collection
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich

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This is one of the rare pictures by Max Ernst which refer directly to a political incident. He commented on this: “The Fireside Angel is a picture I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain. This is, of course, an ironical title for a kind of clumsy oaf which destroys everything that gets in the way. That was my impression in those days of the things that might happen in the world. And I was right.” The Fireside Angel is depicted as an avenging character from the Bible. Its destructive potential is stressed by its aggressive coloring. In the figure of the angel, blind traumatizing force is expressed, against which mankind is defenseless. Since there is no hope for negotiations with an inhuman force, the blind aggressor seems even more frightening.

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“With the exhibition of over 160 of his works at the Fondation Beyeler in cooperation with the Albertina, Vienna, the “artist of the century” Max Ernst (1891-1976) will be given the first comprehensive retrospective in Switzerland since his death as well as the first held in a German-speaking country since 1999.

Max Ernst is one of Modernism’s most versatile artists. After his beginnings as a rebellious Dadaist in Cologne, he moved to Paris in 1922, where he soon became one of the pioneers of Surrealism. He was interned twice as an enemy alien during the Second World but was released thanks to the intervention of the poet Paul Éluard, who was his friend. In 1941 Max Ernst fled to the USA, where he found new stimuli for his work as well as providing new impulses for the generation of young American artists. A decade later he returned to a Europe that had been devastated by the war and where the once highly esteemed Max Ernst seemed to have been forgotten, only to be rediscovered as one of the 20th century’s most multifaceted artists. In 1958, having renounced his German nationality in 1948 in order to take US citizenship, Max Ernst eventually became a French citizen.

Ernst was indeed one of the “artists of the century” – not only because of the high quality and wide range of his oeuvre but also because of the length of his creative career, which lasted around 60 years from 1915 to 1975. Active at a time of tremendous artistic, social, political and technical upheaval, he knew how to integrate these changes into his oeuvre, which therefore reflects key characteristics of the 20th century. The pleasure Max Ernst took in experimenting with different techniques made him a pioneer of multimedia expression. With no apparent effort, he combined in his work the themes, styles and techniques that were important to successive generations. His ceaseless quest for new forms of expression, questions and subjects is emblematic of modern man. Max Ernst appears to us as the artist who never wanted to find himself, as he once said: “A painter is lost when he finds himself”.

With his early Dadaist experience, his key position among the Surrealists and his prelude to action painting, Max Ernst travelled between worlds and cultures, moving to Paris from Cologne and from New York back to France. At a time of political unrest, he maintained his critical, creative gaze, seeking refuge in a country, the USA, which he scarcely knew but to which he nonetheless responded with curiosity and which provided him with important impulses for his late work. With exhibitions in New York, projects in Arizona and Touraine, participation in the Venice Biennale and Documenta, Max Ernst was an early 20th century example of the kind of “cultural and artistic nomad” who only later became a customary figure.

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Collage

As early as 1919, Max Ernst started working with the technique of collage, which he used to design or simulate new pictorial realities. He created his collages from illustrations taken from various novels, textbook catalogues, natural science journals and 19th century sales catalogues. He excised the fragments from wood engravings, using a scalpel in order to achieve cut edges that were perfectly exact and smooth. In around 1929/30 Max Ernst created his most famous collage novels La femme 100 têtes (Hundred-Headed Woman/ Headless Woman) and Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (A little Girl dreams of taking the Veil), which are among Surrealism’s most fascinating, enigmatic works.

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Frottage

In around 1925, Max Ernst began his Natural History series, in which he used the technique of frottage for the first time (the French word frotter means “to rub”) as a semi-automatic procedure. He placed objets trouvés he found outdoors, such as leaves and wood, under a sheet of paper and rubbed over them with a pencil. Then he took the structures that emerged and transformed them into fantastic pictures. In his frottages, Ernst breathes new life into lifeless objects, giving them another, to some extent uncustomary, significance. Max Ernst developed frottage while he was staying in Brittany. In his essay Beyond Painting he describes a kind of visionary revelation that caused him to use the wooden floor and other objects in his guest-house room as objects for his frottages.

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Grattage

Grattage is an artistic technique used by Max Ernst in painting that he developed in around 1927 as an extension of frottage. In a first phase, he applied several superimposed layers of paint to a canvas. Underneath the painting ground that he prepared in that way, he placed objects such as metal grids, wooden boards and string, the relief of which could be seen through the canvas. In order to transfer those structures to the picture, he scratched away the top layers of paint (gratter is the French word for “to scratch”). In a subsequent phase, he reworked the patterns that had become visible, transforming them into forests, shellflowers, birds and petrified cities.

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Decalcomania

Decalcomania is a transfer technique in which the damp pigment on a piece of glass or a sheet of paper is pressed against a canvas, leaving behind fine streaks, bubbles or marbled traces of paint when they are removed. In a subsequent phase, the artist reworks the complex surface structure. This artistic technique had already been developed in the 18th century and was used by other Surrealist artists too. Max Ernst adopted the technique in the late 1930s, using it to represent mysterious landscapes peopled by eery faces, figures and animals hiding in the thickets of nature.

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Oscillation

In around 1942, while an exile in the USA, Max Ernst started developing the technique of oscillation. He let paint drip out of a tin perforated with a number of holes, which he attached to a long string and swung to and fro over the canvas. This largely uncontrollable and, once again, semi-automatic procedure created reticulated compositions of circles, lines and points on the surface that were reminiscent of planets’ orbits. Oscillation was an innovative technique that not only extended the range of Surrealism’s artistic repertoire but also heralded Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting.”

Press release from the Fondation Beyeler website

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Max Ernst. At the First Limpid Word Au premier mot limpide 1923

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Max Ernst
At the First Limpid Word
Au premier mot limpide
1923
Oil on plaster, transferred to canvas
232 cm x 167 cm
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Walter Klein, Düsseldorf

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At the First Limpid Word is one such puzzle. A monumental work, it formed part of the decoration of the house that Max Ernst shared with Paul Éluard and his wife Gala (who later became Dalí’s muse). It was only in the 1960s that the wall painting, which had been painted over, was rediscovered. This painting, “an allegory of seduction,” is such a simple composition but is filled with symbolism in color and subject.

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Max Ernst. 'Ubu Imperator' 1923

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Max Ernst
Ubu Imperator
1923
Oil on canvas
100 cm x 81 cm
Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat

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Like many of Ernst’s paintings during his Paris period (1922-1941), Ubu Imperator resembles a collage in painted form. The artist’s knowledge of Freudian theories, familiarity with myth and extreme wit are reflected in this early painting, which is now considered proto-Surrealist due to its strange juxtapositions.

In Ubu Imperator (1923), an anthropomorphic top dances in a vast, empty landscape. Such works captured early on the surrealist notion of estrangement and commitment to the subconscious, but also they seem surprisingly contemporary. The red Ubu Imperator marked the entry of Ernst in the articulated stage of surrealism by his use of a literary narrative that was sometimes personal, sometimes political. In this seminal work a spinning top, a red carcass with iron reinforcement, and human hands express an astonishing image of the Ubu Father, a grotesque symbol of authority invented by Alfred Jarry. Other paintings suggest Ernst’s impressions of ancient Buddhist temples (à la Angkor Wat) as inspired from his trip to Asia following the breakup of his famous ménage à trois with Gala and Paul Eluard. This structure and thickly overgrown plants appear in many of his engravings and grattage oil paintings, such as The Entire City (1935-36) and The Petrified City (1935). (Max Ernst: A Retrospective on The Brooklyn Rail website)

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Max Ernst. Approaching Puberty… (The Pleiades) La puberté proche... (les pléiades) 1921

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Max Ernst
Approaching Puberty… (The Pleiades)
La puberté proche… (les pléiades)
1921
Collage, gouache, and oil on paper, mounted on cardboard
24.5 cm x 16.5 cm
Private collection
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich

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The Pleiades, companions of Artemis, were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione born on Mount Cyllene. They are the sisters of Calypso, Hyas, the Hyades, and the Hesperides. The Pleiades were nymphs in the train of Artemis, and together with the seven Hyades were called the Atlantides, Dodonides, or Nysiades, nursemaids and teachers to the infant Bacchus. There is some debate as to the origin of the name Pleiades. Previously, it was accepted the name is derived from the name of their mother, Pleione. However, the name Pleiades may derive from πλεῖν(to sail) because of their importance in delimiting the sailing season in the Mediterranean Sea. (Wikipedia)

For Ernst eroticism was another way of entering the unconscious, of escaping from convention, and possibly of tweaking bourgeois taste. But he was aware that adult sexuality had its limits, as is apparent in the exquisite Approaching Puberty… (1921). A photograph of a nude, faceless girl floats in a blue space stratified by horizontal lines, suggesting water or the sky. A few strangely disparate forms surround the girl, and the short text at the bottom ends, “The gravitation of the undulations does not yet exist.” The title, this line, and the fact that the girl floats in space rather than standing on the ground – as most of Ernst’s figures do – suggests that he sees in pubescence a kind of weightless freedom. In a related but nonsexual image, an Untitled c. 1921 collage, four schoolboys peer out of their classroom (from which a wall is missing) at a vast blue sky in which a hot-air balloon floats. A schoolmaster stands alone and ignored at his desk; next to him one of the boys balances a giant pencil on a pointer. What’s learned in school, Ernst seems to say, is far less important than visions of the sky. (“Max Ernst’s Theater of Reveries” by Fred Camper on the Chicago Reader website)

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Max Ernst. 'Napoleon in the Wilderness' 1941

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Max Ernst
Napoleon in the Wilderness
1941
Oil on canvas
46.3 cm x 38 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: © 2013, Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

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In Max Ernst’s painting Napoleon in the Wilderness (1941), a strange whimsical trumpet appears in the hand of a female figure that seems to have sprung from the sinister rock and coral formations of a world in ruin. This painting formed part of suite of decalcomania works, in which Carrington’s semi-naked figure haunts a series of eerie landscapes, richly textured and abundant with mythological hybrid forms. Between periods of internment during the war, Ernst had managed to continue painting, producing haunting images of his abandoned lover in works that evoke his own sense of loss and grief in macabre scenes that promise both decay and renewal. (From Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Natalya Lusty)

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“The exhibition is a chronological presentation of all the major creative phases and groups of themes in Max Ernst’s work, opening with Capricorn, his most important sculpture. Max Ernst, who was born on 2 April 1891 in Brühl (Germany), first learnt about painting from his father. He had a conservative, middle-class upbringing, against which he soon rebelled. Starting in 1910, he studied art history as well as psychology, Romance languages and philosophy. Initially influenced by Expressionism and Futurism, he soon came in contact with other artists and art movements.

His early work City with Animals demonstrates this unique combination of different styles, displaying both Cubist and Futurist features. His encounter with Hans Arp (also represented in the Beyeler Collection along with the Surrealists Dalí, Giacometti and Miró) came at a time full of turmoil. Dada is born; the years after the First World War are a time of radical change, protest and experimentation.

Dada brings Max Ernst into contact with Surrealist artists. He ceases to be just a German artist and becomes a leading figure in the Surrealist art movement in Paris. There his works begin to acquire enigmatic qualities, for the unconscious and dreams are important elements of Surrealism, which it took over from psychoanalysis. Max Ernst remains an innovator, experimenting with frottage from the mid-1920s onwards. Hybrid creatures are created from different natural species; his interest in the natural sciences finds expression in his works.

At the First Limpid Word is one such puzzle. A monumental work, it formed part of the decoration of the house that Max Ernst shared with Paul Éluard and his wife Gala (who later became Dalí’s muse). It was only in the 1960s that the wall painting, which had been painted over, was rediscovered. The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus is an equally spectacular work, a scandal-provoking painting with blasphemous elements that deconstructs the traditional sacred image of the Madonna, representing a radical liberation from Ernst’s middle class roots. One whole room in the exhibition is developed to the theme of the forest, with a number of masterpieces from that series. Considerable importance is also attached to the series of Horde paintings from the late 1920s; the metamorphosed figures convey the theme of transformation. With the Flowers and Cities series (which focus on the antitheses of nature and culture), other important groups of themes are also presented.

Room 11 will contain a number of key works with the jungle paintings from the second half of the 1930s including Nature at Dawn with its dark, sinister character. Different traditions are echoed here, ranging from borrowings from Henri Rousseau to the Romanticism of a painter like Caspar David Friedrich. With The Robing of the Bride there is not only an obvious reference to Renaissance art but also a more differentiated context. The transformation of a woman into an animal and vice versa is an erotic motif that the painting conveys through a number of details. The Fireside Angel, on the other hand, thematises the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, with which many artists and intellectuals concerned themselves. With the brightly coloured, mask-like, terrifying dimension of its figure, which seems to fly towards the viewer as an unstoppable whirlwind between aggression and mockery, Max Ernst prefigures the political catastrophe that was to befall Europe.

Ernst’s late work displays thematic caesura – on the one hand, a poetical and sensuous contemplation using over-painting in the refined, technically innovative work The Garden of France and, on the other, Birth of a Galaxy, a splendid late work in which air, water, earth and light all rise into a starry firmament. As a free spirit – ironical, elegant and rebellious – and a man of many different facets, Max Ernst today remains an artist whose work is both accessible and complex. His works speak to us, evoking uncharted depths and hidden mysteries, as well as prompting reflection. Like mercury – which continuously changes shape in a fascinating way, hence being impossible to grasp – Max Ernst is still an exceptional artist almost forty years after his death, exemplary in his artistic independence and possessing an urge for freedom and a bold readiness for innovation in his work and life that preserve his oeuvre from stylistic opportunism and conventionality.

Max Ernst’s creativity in handling sources of imagery and inspiration, the breaks between his many phases and types of subject matter, are still capable of astonishing viewers today. Like a revolutionary of vision, he rearranged images and elements, and as a Surrealist established links between pictures and the viewer’s unconscious mind. What remained a constant was the persistence of Ernst’s rebellion. Like his life, he once said, his work was “not harmonious in the sense of classical composers.” A master of metamorphosis, Ernst was a searcher and discoverer, an honarary doctor of philosophy who increasingly expanded his range of investigation to include astronomy, ethnology, ornithology, mathematics and psychoanalysis, following up his love of the natural sciences and creative chance.”

Press release from the Fondation Beyeler website

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Max Ernst. The Robing of the Bride L'habillement de l’épousée / de la mariée 1940

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Max Ernst
The Robing of the Bride
L’habillement de l’épousée / de la mariée
1940
Oil on canvas
129.6 cm x 96.3 cm
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

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The Robing of the Bride (1939-41; Venice, Guggenheim) employs Renaissance perspective devices and Cranach-like figures to represent a pagan marriage.

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Max Ernst. The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard and the Artist La Vierge corrigeant l’enfant Jésus devant trois témoins: André Breton, Paul Éluard et le peintre 1926

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Max Ernst
The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard and the Artist
La Vierge corrigeant l’enfant Jésus devant trois témoins: André Breton, Paul Éluard et le peintre
1926
Oil on canvas
196 cm x 130 cm
Museum Ludwig, Cologne
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Peter Willi / ARTOTHEK

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Max Ernst. The Immaculate Conception L'immaculée conception 1929

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Max Ernst
The Immaculate Conception
L’immaculée conception
1929
Master illustration for La femme 100 têtes, chapter 1, plate 12
Collage on paper
14.2 cm x 14.5 cm
Private collection
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich

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Max Ernst La femme 100 têtes (1967) pt1

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This is a ‘free’ adaptation of Max Ernst’s collage book La femme 100 têtes, originally published in 1929. directed by Eric Duvivier. The book consisted of a surrealist picture per page, with a little legend. But the story depended on the ability of the reader to interpret the collages, and was not relying that much on the legends. The book was about a woman who was living among ghosts and ants, and was an allegory of the immaculate conception.

Thus, even if that movie is in french, with no subs, it is possible, and even encouraged, to view it as a collage in motion.

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'Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with the cement sculpture Capricorne (Capricorn), Sedona, Arizona' 1948

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Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with the cement sculpture Capricorne (Capricorn), Sedona, Arizona
1948
© 
2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Max Ernst Documentation, Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris / John Kasnetzis

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Dorothea Margaret Tanning (August 25, 1910 – January 31, 2012) was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor and writer. She created ballet sets and costumes for George Balanchine’s Night Shadow, at the Metropolitan Opera House and others. She also appeared in Hans Richter’s avant-garde films. As an artist she was influenced by Dada and Surrealism and married fellow Surrealist Max Ernst.

As she recounts in her memoirs, Birthday and Between Lives, when Ernst visited her studio in 1942, they played chess, fell in love, and embarked on a life together that soon took them to Sedona, Arizona, and later to France. They met at a party in 1942 and after he would drop by Dorothea’s studio where she painted for a Surrealist movement exhibition of art by women for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. In that exhibition, Tanning’s work showed along with the work of Louise Nevelson and Gypsy Rose Lee. Soon after this encounter Ernst moved in with her.

They married in 1946, in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in Hollywood, after Ernst’s divorce from Peggy Guggenheim. They remained married for 30 years until his death. In 1949, Tanning and Ernst moved to France, where they divided their time between Paris, Touraine and later Provence. They would often host guest such as Balanchine, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp, Pavel Tchelitchew and Dylan Thomas. In 1957 Tanning and Ernst moved to France again because Max Ernst was denied citizenship as a German during the McCarthy era. When speaking on her relationship with Ernst in an interview, Tanning said: “I was a loner, am a loner, good Lord, it’s the only way I can imagine working. And then when I hooked up with Max Ernst, he was clearly the only person I needed and, I assure you, we never, never talked art. Never.”

After Max Ernst died in 1979 Dorothea Tanning returned to the United States. (Wikipedia)

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'Max Ernst with rocking horse, Paris' 1938

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Max Ernst with rocking horse, Paris
1938
2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Max Ernst Museum Brühl des LVR, Stiftung Max Ernst

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Fondation Beyeler
Beyeler Museum AG
Baselstrasse 77, CH-4125
Riehen, Switzerland

Opening hours:
10 am – 6 pm daily, Wednesdays until 8 pm

Fondation Beyeler website

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20
Oct
12

Review: ‘Gregory Crewdson: In A Lonely Place’ at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 28th September – 11th November 2012

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Installation photographs of the series Beneath the Roses (2003-2008) from the exhibition Gregory Crewdson: In A Lonely Place at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne (Photos: Dr Marcus Bunyan)

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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Details of one of Gregory Crewdson’s works from the series Beneath the Roses (2003-2008) (Photos: Dr Marcus Bunyan)

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“The American middle-class nightmare: nothing is clean, orderly, idyllic, or romantic. In his perfectly staged, hyperrealistic tableaux, photographer Gregory Crewdson reveals the claustrophobic limbo and abyss of spiritual repression that is the typical suburb. Here, hushed-up violence, alienation, isolation, and emptiness are nothing new or unfamiliar, but rather part of the everyday neighbourhood experience.”

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Gregory Crewdson, In a Lonely Place, Abrams Publishing, New York, 2011

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“I have always been fascinated by the poetic condition of twilight. By its transformative quality. Its power of turning the ordinary into something magical and otherworldly. My wish is for the narrative in the pictures to work within that circumstance. It is that sense of in-between-ness that interests me.”

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Gregory Crewdson

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Downfall of a dream: (n)framing the enigma in Gregory Crewdson’s
Beneath the Roses

After the excoriating, unreasonably subjective diatribe by Robert Nelson in The Age newspaper (“Unreal stills, unmoving images” Wednesday October 17 2012) I hope this piece of writing will offer greater insight into the work of this internationally renowned artist. With some reservations, I like Crewsdon’s work, I like it a lot – as do the crowds of people flocking to the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy to see the exhibition. Never have I seen so many people at the CCP looking at contemporary photography before and that can only be a good thing.

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The early series Fireflies are small silver gelatin photographs that capture “the tiny insects’ transient moments of light as they illuminate the summer night.” These are minor works that fail to transcend the ephemeral nature of photography, fail to light the imagination of the viewer when looking at these scenes of dusky desire and discontinuous lives. The series of beautiful photographs titled Sanctuary (2010) evidence the “ruin of the legendary Cinecittà studios, which was founded by Mussolini in the 1930s and is associated with the great Italian film director Federico Fellini.” Wonderful photographs of doorways, temples, dilapidated stage sets with excellent use of soft miasmic light creating an atmosphere of de/generation (as though a half-remembered version of Rome had passed down through the generations) interfaced with contemporary Rome as backdrop. The digital prints show no strong specular highlights, no deep blacks but a series of transmutable grey and mid tones that add to the overall feeling of romantic ruin. It is a pity that these photographs are not printed as silver gelatin photographs, for they would have had much more depth of feeling than they presently possess. They just feel a little “thin” to me to sustain the weight of atmosphere required of them.

But it is the series Beneath the Roses (2003-2008) that has made Crewdson truly famous. Shot using a large format camera, Crewdson makes large-scale photographs of elaborate and meticulously staged tableaux, which have been described as “micro-epics” that probe the dark corners of the psyche. Working in the manner of a film director, he leads a production crew, which includes a director of photography, special effects and lighting teams, casting director and actors. He typically makes several exposures that he later digitally combines to produce the final image. Photographs in the series of “brief encounters” include external dioramas (shot in a down at heel Western Massachusetts town), where Crewdson shuts down streets and lights the whole scene; to interior dialogues where houses are built on sound stages and the artist can control every detail of the production. Influences on these works include, but are not limited to:

David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters), the paintings of Edward Hopper, Diane Arbus (the detritus of her photographic interiors), film noir, psychoanalysis, American suburbia, the American dream, the photographs of Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman and surrealism. Concepts that you could link to the work include loneliness, alienation, apathy, resignation, mystery, contemplation and confusion, identity, desire, memory and imagination.

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Now to the nuts and bolts of the matter.

Another major influence that I will add is that of the great Italian director Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita – The Sweet Life) who shot most of that film on the sets at Cinecittà studios in Rome. It is perhaps no coincidence that Crewdson, on his first overseas film shoot, shot the series Sanctuary at the very same location. Crewdson’s photographs in the series Beneath the Roses are an American form of  “The Sweet Life.” In 1961, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised Fellini’s “brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary on the tragedy of the over-civilized… Fellini is nothing if not fertile, fierce and urbane in calculating the social scene around him and packing it onto the screen. He has an uncanny eye for finding the offbeat and grotesque incident, the gross and bizarre occurrence that exposes a glaring irony. He has, too, a splendid sense of balance and a deliciously sardonic wit that not only guided his cameras but also affected the writing of the script. In sum, it is an awesome picture, licentious in content but moral and vastly sophisticated in its attitude and what it says.”1 The same could equally be said of the Crewdson and his masterpieces in Beneath the Roses. Crewdson is in love with Fellini’s gesture – of the uplifting of the characters and their simultaneous descent into “sweet” hedonism, debauchery and decadence using the metaphor of downfall (downfall links each scene in La Dolce Vita, that of a “downward spiral that Marcello sets in motion when descending the first of several staircases (including ladders) that open and close each major episode.”)2 Crewdson’s “spectacular apocalypses of social enervation”3 mimic Fellini’s gestural flourishes becoming Crewdson’s theme of America’s downfall, America as a moral wasteland. Crewdson’s is “an aesthetic of disparity” that builds up a cumulative impression on the viewer that finds resolution in an “overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is.”4

Crewdson’s cinematic encounters are vast and pin sharp when seen in the flesh. No reproduction on the web can do their physical presence justice; it is the details that delight in these productions. You have to get up close and personal with the work. His dystopic landscapes are not narratives as such, not stills taken from a movie (for that implies an ongoing story) but open-ended constructions that allow the viewer to imagine the story for themselves. They do not so much evoke a narrative as invite the viewer to create one for themselves – they are an “invitation” to a narrative, one that explores the anxiety of the (American) imagination, an invitation to empathise with the dramas at play within contemporary environments. For me, Crewdson’s extra ordinary photographs are a form of enigma (a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation), the picture as master puzzle (where all the pieces fit perfectly together in stillness) that contains a riddle or hidden meaning. Clues to this reading can be found in one of the photographs from the series (Blue Period, see detail image, above) where Crewdson deliberately leaves the door of a bedside cupboard open to reveal a “Perfect PICTURE PUZZLE” box inside. The viewer has to really look into the image and understand the significance of this artefact.

Another reading that I have formulated is of the transience of space and time within Crewdson’s series. In the disquieting, anonymous townscapes people look out from their porches (or the verandas are lit and empty), they abandon their cars or walk down desolate streets hardly ever looking directly out at the viewer. The photographs become sites of mystery and wonder hardly anchored (still precisely anchored?) in time and space. This disparity is emphasised in the interior dialogues. The viewer (exterior) looks at a framed doorway or window (exterior) looking into an scene (interior) where the walls are usually covered with floral wallpaper (interior / exterior) upon which hangs a framed image of a Monet-like landscape (exterior) (see detail image, above). Exterior, exterior, interior, interior / exterior, exterior. The trees of the landscape invade the home but are framed; exterior/framed, interior/mind. There is something mysterious going on here, some reflection of an inner state of mind.

In his visual mosaics Crewdson engages our relationship with time and space to challenge the trace of experience. His tableaux act as a kind of threshold or hinge of experience – between interior and exterior, viewer and photograph. His photographs are a form of monism in which two forces (interior / exterior) try to absorb each other but ultimately lead to a state of equilibrium. It is through this “play” that the context of the photographs and their relationship to each other and the viewer are “framed.” This device emphasises the aesthetic as much as information and encourages the viewer to think about the relationship between the body, the world of which it is part and the dream-reason of time.5 This intertextual (n)framing (n meaning unspecified number in mathematics) encourages the viewer to explore the inbetween spaces in the non-narrative / meta-narrative,”and by leaps (intuitive leaps, poetic leaps, leaps of faith)”6 encourage escapism in the imagination of the viewer. It is up to us as viewers to seek the multiple, disparate significances of what is concealed in each photograph as “felt knowledge” (Walter Benjamin), recalling to mind the sensory data placed before our eyes, something that can be experienced but cannot be explained by man: “the single moment of the present amidst the transience of life and searching for some kind of eternal truth.”7

Finally, in a more adverse reading of the photographs from the series Beneath the Roses, I must acknowledge the physically (not mentally) static nature of the images where every detail of the mise-en-scène is fully articulated and locked down: from the perfect trickle of blood running from the woman’s vagina in Blue Period, to the reflections in mirrors, the detritus of living scattered on the bedroom floor, the dirty telephone, packed suitcases and keys in locks to the desolate looks of the participants that never engage with the viewer. Despite allusions of despair, in their efficacy (their static and certain world order), there is no real chthonic madness here, no real messiness of the capture of death, murder and the wastage of human life (famine, AIDS, cancer or the blood running over the pavement in one of Weegee’s murder scenes for example). This is Fellini’s gross and bizarre LITE. Americurbana “is being addressed with the same reserve and elegance that ensures that the institution – artistic, political, what you will – is upheld and never threatened. It is pre-eminently legible, it elicits guilt but not so much as to cause offence.”8 I must also acknowledge the male-orientated viewpoint of the photographs, where men are seated, clothed, lazy or absent and all too often women are doing the washing or cooking, are naked and vulnerable. In their portrayal of (usually) half dressed or naked females the photographs evidence a particularly male view of the world, one that his little empathy or understanding of how a female actually lives in the world. For me this portrait of the feminine simply does not work. The male photographer maintains control (and power) by remaining resolutely (in)visible.

Overall this is a outstanding exhibition that thoroughly deserves that accolades it is receiving. Sitting in the gallery space for an hour and a half and soaking up the atmosphere of these magnificent works has been for me one of the art experiences of 2012. Make sure that you do not miss these mesmerising prophecies.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to the artist, Gagosian Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Photography for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Special thankx to Director of the CCP Naomi Cass and Ms. James McKee from Gagosian Gallery for facilitating the availability of the media images. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

All photographs © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Installation and detail photographs Dr Marcus Bunyan

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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“In a Lonely Place presents selections from three major series by Gregory Crewdson, Fireflies (1996), Beneath the Roses (2003-2008), Sanctuary (2010) and, presented for the first time, the video Field Notes (2009). The exhibition title comes from Nicholas Ray’s 1950s film noir of the same name, one of many films that inspired Crewdson. In a Lonely Place is evocative of an underlying mood-a quiet feeling of alienation and loneliness that links the three series selected by curators Estelle Af Malmborg, Jens Erdman Rasmussen and Felix Hoffmann. In a Lonely Place presents the first comprehensive exhibition of Crewdson’s work in Australia.

In Beneath the Roses, anonymous townscapes, forest clearings and broad, desolate streets are revealed as sites of mystery and wonder; similarly, ostensibly banal interiors become the staging grounds for strange human scenarios. Crewdson’s scenes are tangibly atmospheric: visually alluring and often deeply disquieting. Never anchored precisely in time or place, these and the other narratives of Beneath the Roses are located in the dystopic landscape of the anxious American imagination. Crewdson explores the American psyche and the dramas at play within quotidian environments.

In his most recent series, Sanctuary (2010), Crewdson has taken a new direction, shooting for the first time outside the US. During a trip to Rome, he visited the legendary Cinecittà studios, which was founded by Mussolini in the 1930s and is associated with the great Italian film director Federico Fellini. Crewdson discovered fragments of a past glory, with occasional unexpected views of the surrounding contemporary Roman suburbia. Cinecittà is a lonely place deserted by the film crews who once used the site to recreate settings of ancient Rome, medieval Italy and nineteenth-century New York.

In the intimate photographs of Fireflies, Crewdson portrays the mating ritual of fireflies at dusk, capturing the tiny insects’ transient moments of light as they illuminate the summer night. Unlike the theatrical scale of the Beneath the Roses and Sanctuary series, Fireflies is a quiet meditation on the nature of light and desire, as the images reflect not only upon the fleeting movements of the insects in their intricate mating ritual, but upon the notion of photography itself, in capturing a single ephemeral moment.

Gregory Crewdson received a BA from the State University of New York, Purchase, New York in 1985 and an MFA in Photography from Yale School of Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut in 1988. He has exhibited widely in the United States and Europe. He is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art, Yale University. Gregory Crewdson is represented by Gagosian Gallery and White Cube Gallery.”

Press release from the Gagosian Gallery website

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Installation photographs the series Sanctuary (2010) from the exhibition Gregory Crewdson: In A Lonely Place at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne (Photos: Dr Marcus Bunyan)

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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1. Crowther’s review first published in The New York Times, April 20, 1961. In Fava and Vigano, 105 quoted in Anon. “La Dolce Vita,” on Wikipedia Footnote 30 [Online] Cited 20/10/2012. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Dolce_Vita

2. Anon. “La Dolce Vita,” on Wikipedia Footnote 30 [Online] Cited 20/10/2012. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Dolce_Vita

3. Sultanik, Aaron. Film, a Modern Art. Cranbury, N.J: Cornwall Books, 1986, p.408

4. Richardson, Robert. “Waste Lands: The Breakdown of Order,” in Bondanella (ed.), Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism, p.111 quoted in Anon. “La Dolce Vita,” on Wikipedia Footnote 30 [Online] Cited 20/10/2012.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Dolce_Vita

5. Bacon, Julie Louise. “Liquid Archive: On Ambivalence,” in Liquid Archive. Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), 2012, p.119

6. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “The Museum – A Refuge for Utopian Thought,” in Rüsen, Jörn; Fehr Michael, and Ramsbrock, Annelie (eds.). Die Unruhe der Kultur: Potentiale des Utopischen. Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2004. In German.

7. Kataoka, Mami commenting on the work of Allan Kaprow. “Transient Encounters,” in Broadsheet: Criticism, Theory, Art Vol 41.3, September 2012, p.174

8. Geczy, Adam. “A dish served lukewarm,” in Broadsheet: Criticism, Theory, Art Vol 41.3, September 2012, p.177

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Centre for Contemporary Photography
404 George St, Fitzroy
Victoria 3065, Australia
T: + 61 3 9417 1549

Opening Hours:
Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm
Sunday, 1pm – 5pm

Gagosian Gallery website

Centre for Contemporary Photography website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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