The diminutive nude female figure in the upper right area of The Nymph Echo (1936) is often identified as Echo — a mountain nymph of Greek Mythology. Far more dominant, however, is the monstrous green vegetal creatures — or is it creatures — in the foreground. This wildly imaginative hydra-headed creation may represent Narcissus, whom Echo loved. Famously, Narcissus fell in love with his own beautiful image reflected in a pool and wasted away from unsatisfied desire, whereupon he was transformed into a flower. The various delicately colored floral effusions in Ernst’s painting recall this moment of metamorphosis.
Max Ernst was fascinated with microscopic images, which were first broadly distributed in the early twentieth century. For The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses (1921), he created an overpainting on the ambitious scale of traditional oil painting by using a commercially available teaching chart. Ernst inverted the found poster, which contains magnified views of brewer’s yeast cells, and selectively painted in a black background. He then painted gears and bands, as well as humanizing details including eyes, noses, limbs, and whiskers to create a virtual circus of tightrope walkers, clowns and cyclists. The inscription lands amusing sexual connotations to the hairs, orifices and protrusions of these microorgasms.
Max Ernst painted the first state of Woman, Old Man and Flower in 1923, the year after he moved from Cologne to Paris to join the nascent Surrealist group. He subsequently modified elements of this picture. Most astonishingly, he added the mysterious, partially transparent, partially modeled, fan-topped figure in the foreground — presumably the flower referenced in the painting’s title. Even before leaving Germany, Ernst had been thinking about translating the collage and overpainting strategies of his small Dada works on paper into oil on canvas. The results achieved included radical leaps in scale, intensified colors, and what he described to fellow Dadaist Tristan Tzara as “a much insaner effect.”
Photographed as part of the Exhibit, Max Ernst: Beyond Painting, Up Through January 1st, 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Dorothea Tanning (August 25, 1910 – January 31, 2012) was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer and poet. Her early work was influenced by Surrealism, and she was the 4th and final wife of famous German surrealist Max Ernst (1891 – 1976).
In her own words Tanning noted the following about On Time Off Time:
“What I remember most about this picture is the support. It was a piece of wonderful linen that I stretched and prepared myself. It was the only time I ever did any such thing. And then, of course, when it was done, I felt I had to make some rare precious picture on it, and I think the words I used were the key to the enigmatic quality that I wanted.” Other than that, not much is known about this painting’s meaning.
Dorothea Tanning died at her home Manhattan in 2012, home at age 101 – wow!
Photographed in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
A red wooden gate affixed to the painted surface opens onto a painted scene dominated by blue sky. At left, a female figure brandishes a small knife; another falls limp in a swoon; a man atop the roof carries off a third, his hand outstretched to grab a real knob fastened to the frame. The title of the work (inscribed at the base), was inspired by a fever dream the young Max Ernst experienced while in bed with measles.
As Ernst recalled in third-person, the dream was “provoked by an imitation-mahogany panel opposite his bed, the grooves of the wood taking successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.” A poem Ernst penned shortly before making this work in 1924 begins, “At nightfall, at the outskirts of the village, two children are threatened by a nightingale.”
Two Children Are Threatened By a Nightingale is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.