Max Ernst, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Imaginative Escape

– par Erin Imbert


I’m a total amateur when it comes to art, but I love to go to art museums and see it. I love studying not only the the art itself, but also the philosophy of art and life that lurks behind it and the story of the person who created it. Each visit opens up a new art vista for me and begins to form a web of beauty (and sometimes, the not so beautiful) that reveals various ways of seeing the world. Some are hopeful, others reflect disillusionment, perhaps even despair, but I try to “see” alongside all of the artists and relate what I see to the truth that I know, and that I think so many of them point to, whether they recognized it or not.

One of the art museums in Aix-en-Provence, the Caumont Centre d’Art, does exclusively rotating exhibits where they bring in the works of a particular artist or collection from all over the world. This week I went to see their exhibit featuring the 20th century artist, Max Ernst. Admittedly, I went mostly to stretch my art knowledge a little bit. As a 20th century painter involved in the Dadaism and Surrealism movements, his style is not my usual preference in art.

Max Ernst, « Europe After the Rain II »

Ernst was one of the many artists conscripted into the First World War who came out of it completely disillusioned with a world that could produce such atrocities. In regards to his experience during the war, he wrote, « On the first of August 1914 M[ax].E[rnst]. died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918.” Born in Germany, he moved to France in 1922. At the start of the Second World War, as a German national living in France, he was considered suspect and was arrested and detained by the French authorities. He was released thanks to the intervention of his friends, but a year later was again arrested, this time by German occupying forces, and was interned at the Camp des Milles which was just outside Aix-en-Provence. After two escapes, he managed to get to New York and he remained in America as an “enemy foreigner” for the duration of the war.

I highlight his experience in relation to the two World Wars because I’ve been thinking about how his art was a reaction to this experience. Especially that of the First World War in which he was at the front. A few years ago, the Tate Museum in London had an exhibit called “Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One”. In an article related to that exhibit, they outlined nine ways that artists responded to the the First World War. One of those ways, under which the article included Max Ernst, was by rejecting the rational. Unable to comprehend the harsh realities of war, artists began looking at more unconventional ways to express themselves. Confused and disoriented, they began to make art that posed more questions than it answered. The artist Kurt Schwitters described the disorder they were working in: “Everything had broken down…new things had to be made from fragments…new art forms out of the remains of a former culture.”

For Max Ernst, “poetry and art were the only means of overturning the old world that had led to the violence and trauma of world conflicts.” Believing, like Schwitters, that he was working with “fragments”, he developed techniques such as collage which, according to to the description given at the Caumont exhibit, “consists of juxtaposing fragments of images form various sources and assembling them with the aim of representing an image whose unity lies solely in its power of illusion.” A “magnificently tormented spirit” in the words of his friend André Breton, the startling juxtapositions and bizarre worlds of Max Ernst showed me a man in search of an escape from reason and reality.

Max Ernst, « Epiphanie »

While learning all this about Max Ernst, I couldn’t help but compare him to another man who had experienced the trenches of the First World War. A man who returned home after experiencing its horrors with the same shattered “fragments,” but from them created one of the most beautiful stories ever told: J.R.R. Tolkien. Both men were greatly influenced by the great myths and stories of our culture and both created imaginative worlds of their own. They were very different worlds, however. The worlds of Max Ernst were liberated from reality, an incarnation of his quest for ultimate freedom. Tolkien also created his world as an escape from reality, but it was an escape to recover the true nature of the world. Not reality as we see it, but as it truly is. Tolkien takes us on a journey into the fantastical so that we can return again and see the familiar with new eyes. He said that, “We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves.” The “escape” of Tolkien, is not the flight of the deserter, but the escape of the prisoner, for whom the world outside has not become less real because he cannot see it.

I found it interesting that so many of the paintings I saw by Max Ernst included a moon or star somewhere above the darkness of the chaotic scenes or dark forests. This element of radiance may simply be a focusing technique coming from his interest in psycho-analysis, perhaps intended as something subliminal. And yet, each time I saw it, this point of light above the darkness suggested an element of hope above all the distorted and incongruous fragments that made up the paintings. I thought again of Tolkien, in that poignant scene were Sam and Frodo are alone in the evil land of Mordor and their quest feels hopeless. Sam looks up and sees one small white star twinkling in the darkness and, “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” Or, to transpose Sam’s epiphany into the language of Scripture, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5)

For Tolkien, joy and hope come out of escape, not as a denial of reality, but as a true and renewed perception of it.

I was surprised to find that I liked the work of Max Ernst. I appreciated the questions he was asking, his attempt to enflesh the escape he was looking for, his strange worlds populated with even stranger creatures. But I was also troubled, because in the creation of his liberated, imaginative worlds, Max Ernst had turned and looked inward for his answers. His goal was to let his unconscious mind express itself. He described how in making art he always “kept one eye closed to regard the interior with the inner eye.” In order to manifest the inner self, Ernst even created an alter-ego called Loplop, a hybrid creature that was half-bird and half-human. Loplop persisted in his works and followed him everywhere, showing up over and over in many bizarre forms in the paintings that I saw at the exhibit, an image of the self at the center of his work.

Tolkien’s world, by contrast, included a narrative that was larger than the individual and his interior world. A recognition that any great story reflects the supreme story. The Christian story. The story that entered history and the primary world. His narrative did not deny or ignore the atrocities that he had seen, but rather recognized that, “the consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” For Tolkien, joy and hope come out of escape, not as a denial of reality, but as a true and renewed perception of it.

Ted Nasmith, « Luthien »

Tolkien’s larger narrative might also be represented by a bird. In one of his early stories, “The Tale of Tinúviel”, Tinúviel’s attendant bird is a nightingale. But unlike Ernst’s Loplop, Tinúviel’s nightingale is not an alter-ego but a symbol of the importance of beauty and the indefatigable nature of hope, the fleeting glimpse of joy represented by Tinúviel herself. Tolkien biographer John Garth finds its symbolic significance in the words of Tolkien’s friend Rob Gilson, who, “hearing a nightingale in the early hours one May morning from his trench dugout, thought it ‘wonderful that shells and bullets shouldn’t have banished them.’” The nightingale stands as “a fitting emblem of eucatastrophe [that is, the good catastrophe], pouring out its fluting song when all is dark.”

In the end, it seems that the best that Max Ernst can offer us is escape into fantastical interior worlds with no hope outside of ourselves. But Tolkien is a guide who takes us through an imaginative world in order to give us a glimpse of the miraculous grace to be found in our own world, but that we have lost, either through disillusionment or familiarity, the ability to see. I know which guide I want to follow. The one who will take me by way of Tinúviel and her nightingale to hope, even in the dark.