Sunday, May 08, 2005

Max Ernst and Style

I left the Metropolitan's retrospective exhibition on Max Ernst profoundly disturbed. Some part of my disturbance should probably be chalked up to a touch of Stendhal Syndrome: feeling flattened by powerful art. But there was something about Ernst's art that worried at me, maybe at my preconceptions, and that was the extraordinary diversity of styles he worked in.

Picasso also tried his hand at most media available to artists in his time and transformed every medium, style, or technique he put his hand to--but when you see a Picasso, you know it: yes, he stole ideas, tricks, and themes from everyone around him, but he put his own mark on the work. Ernst, on the other hand, seems to have inhabited the aesthetics of his contemporaries, and in phases. I would never have guessed that one man could have produced all of the different styles of art that were on display; the work isn't just proliflic and diverse, it is practically schizophrenic.

Ernst could produce Klee-like canvases covered in mysterous emblems. He also produced Dali-like landscapes with glossy Renaissance coloring and assemblaged, tortured figures. In another canvas, he would distort perspective and use matte oil medium in the style of De Chirico. Then he'd do a Theodore Rousseau/Caspar David Friedrich mash-up. Then Matisse would take over; then Moreau, then Kandinsky, then Carrington; then Cezanne would meet Da Vinci with a little Monet cut in. These references weren't subtle, and I have to wonder how controlled they were, seeing as how the canvases shown had, to me, little unity of palette, technique, or theme.

Assemblage is of course one of the great Surrealist discoveries, so some of this citing other painting styles could be part of a project on Ernst's part to bring different aesthetics together in new forms. And while the Surrealist group contained or at least influenced some famous ego-maniacs, the ideas driving the aesthetic emphasized an experimental approach to making art. Still, I left the show with only the vaguest of senses of what Ernst was doing with his work besides just trying stuff out.

So this leads me to ask myself whether this shock at seeing the disjointed work of such a prolific artist doesn't mean that I have too deeply internalized the idea that a style should be the indicator of a unitary subjectivity, a la Roland Barthes. Thinking further, on my way home, I thought about those moments I've watched artists rip up experimental work: some of it was genuinely mediocre, but some of it simply implied a direction that the artist didn't want to pursue. Or work that the artist wanted to keep out of his or her brand.

Whether Ernst ever tried branding himself, I don't know. The Met curators seem to have decided to market specifically the diversity of this retrospective, so that approach may have intensified what clearly was already a wild oeuvre and my perhaps conservative or corporatized expectations about the trajectories of artistic careers. The exhibit left me confused and shaken: a single-artist show, with no singularity and no artist. I know, I know, the author is dead--but even Barthes described style as so personal as to be outside analysis! I remain disturbed.

Some links with images: Art Info, Art Blog, the Met.


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