Spotlight Essay: Max Ernst

Max Ernst, L’oeil du silence (The Eye of Silence), 1943-44

Spotlight Essay: Max Ernst, L’oeil du silence (The Eye of Silence), 1943-44
March 2008; updated 2016

Sabine Eckmann
William T. Kemper Director and Chief Curator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Max Ernst’s otherworldly landscape L’oeil du silence (The Eye of Silence) depicts what may be described as an artificial hell. Considering the many artificial paradises produced by artists over the last two hundred years in order to compensate for the modern experience of loss of nature, Ernst certainly added to this trajectory a dichotomous position. The painting does not render a refined or composed expression of a natural site but collages together elements that have their origin in fantastic and exotic garden architectures, as exemplified by the columns in the background. Grottoes populated by stalactites and stalagmites surround and are reflected in the central lake, and surreal circular forms resembling eyes animate the geologic forms. The fairy-tale woman who lounges on the rock formation in the lower right-hand corner further transforms the landscape into an uncanny and imaginary space. Underscoring these haunting, even terrifying effects is Ernst’s palette, which includes a wide variety of earth tones but is dominated by an eerie green that evokes both beauty and ghostly worlds. The dark cloud formation above the grotto is moving on, however, as if to leave the scene, making way for a brighter, more expectant sky in which an optimistic and peaceful blue breaks through white clouds in the distance.

Ernst painted The Eye of Silence while in exile in the United States and traveling with his then-wife, Peggy Guggenheim, in the American West; through a small opening between the rock formations on the left side of the canvas we glimpse what could be the seemingly endless and wide-open landscape of that region. Yet Ernst’s reception in the United States as an exile and famous Surrealist artist from Nazi Germany was not what one would call a success.1 Although he was an undeniable presence in the New York art world during his first year of exile, in 1941, in the following years he was largely absent from exhibitions and other cultural activities. He described his exilic experience as one marked by isolation and estrangement.2 Given these alienating circumstances, it is not surprising that Ernst—like fellow Surrealist exiles such as André Masson, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy—took up the genre of landscape painting rather than engaging with American modernization and the manifold sensuous and sensational experiences of its bustling cities.

In contradistinction to his colleagues, however, Ernst inflected his landscapes with conventions of German Romanticism. The Eye of Silence, for example, evokes the work of the German painter and philosopher Carl Gustav Carus and his so-called earth-life paintings, such as Fingal’s Cave (after 1844), depicting an underground grotto.3 Instead of imitating or improving upon nature, Carus was interested in exploring nature itself. Coinciding with the importance of speculative physics, the sciences in general, and the newly established interrelation between science, art, and nature in the nineteenth century, Carus was interested in comprehending nature as a geologic formation, as a living organism that is unstable, continuously changing, and constantly in motion.4 In short, Carus attempted to “learn to speak the language of nature” in order to visualize an unmediated state of nature that prefigures any and all enlightened conceptions of landscape.5 This ambition was coupled with a notion of the artist as an autonomous shaper of invisible, divine, or better natural worlds.

But how, we have to ask, did Ernst utilize and transform Carus’s concept of earth-life painting under the condition of exile in the new world? Was Ernst, in line with Carus, invested in reaching back to a status of natural history that predates and prefigures the devastations enabled by rational order, including the destruction of the European continent by the Nazi regime? Similar to Carus, Ernst depicted a combination of natural forms: those that we can see, such as the pool of water and the sky, and those that lie behind and below the surface, such as stalactites and stalagmites.6 Yet Ernst moved these nether formations aboveground, from the inside of caves to the exterior, under a foreboding sky, where their visual quality is one of movement and transformation. In contrast to the water and sky, which we can fix with our eyes, the unstable and fragmented structures seem to be undergoing a visual metamorphosis into shapes that resemble human figures, animals, architectural elements, and natural forms.

To underscore this perceptual experience of change, instability, and hybridity, Ernst experimented with the technique of decalcomania. Replacing the usual modernist and individualistic artistic mark-making, decalcomania, by contrast, relies on chance and preexisting visual forms. Developed by Ernst and Hans Bellmer in the concentration camp of Les Milles in the South of France in 1938–39, decalcomania encompasses the process of pressing thin paint with the help of an object, such as a flat piece of cardboard, onto the canvas.7 The uneven amounts of paint generate shapes that bear a resemblance to stalactites and stalagmites. In paintings such as The Eye of Silence, Ernst also imitated the results of decalcomania through painterly means.

The Eye of Silence is thus composed of chance forms, naturalistically rendered geologic structures and landscape elements, and fantastic, surreal shapes, all of which are arrested within a loosely conceived perspectival order in which background elements push into the foreground, toward the picture plane, while others recess spatially. Through the technique of decalcomania, Ernst consciously indicated the removal of artistic subjectivity and creative ambitions from the painting, contesting the treasured analogy between the natural and artistic expression.8 Moreover, the artist collaged together different landscapes in fragments not usually experienced together. By bringing ulterior elements of nature to the surface—depicted as undergoing metamorphosis and resembling surrealistic and fantastic forms that are, however, as inanimate as the lifeless, silent eyes that populate the eerie scene—Ernst inverted the notion of nature as a living organism. It is in this sense that we may comprehend the ossified structures as metaphors for the destroyed Europe.

Since Ernst painted similar grotto-like landscapes in Europe, some of which he brought with him to the United States, we can read the painting as a combination of narrative threads from the past and present that also anticipate a utopian future. To be sure, both the painting’s title and the uncanny scene itself allude to a frozen moment, first and foremost bespeaking silence and death, and hence might be seen as referring to the European situation that the artist had left behind. Nevertheless, other elements in the painting direct us to a possibly more humane present and future. Together with the figure of the woman, who indicates new beginnings, we can read the small opening onto a vast and bright, albeit still blurry and unspecific, natural space as promising new life.9 And although this landscape remains at an auratic distance, it marks The Eye of Silence as a transitory image that includes both decay and regeneration and that notably converts political history into metaphors for natural processes.

Despite this glimmer of optimism, it is important to recognize that in The Eye of Silence Ernst visualized the experience of exile and estrangement by turning nature into a lifeless—unhomely and uncanny—space, as opposed to articulating a place of belonging where one can experience sensory pleasures and comfort.

Endnotes

[1] See my essay “Max Ernst in New York, 1941–45,” in Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York: Abrams, 1997), 156–63.

[2] Ibid., 156.

[3] Oskar Bätschmann, “Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869): Physician, Naturalist, 
Painter, and Theoretician of Landscape Painting,” in Carl Gustav Carus: Nine Letters on Landscape Painting, ed. Oskar Bätschmann (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002), 11–73.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] It is interesting to note that the German artist Thomas Demand created 
a life-size model of an underground grotto out of paper and cardboard, 
which he photographed for his work Grotto (2006).

[7] See Günther Metken, “Europa nach dem Regen—Max Ernsts 
Dekalkomanien und die Tropfsteinhöhlen in Südfrankreich,” Städel Jahrbuch 5, no. 7 (1975): 287–89; Metken, “Zwischen Europa und Amerika,” in Max Ernst–Retrospektive, ed. Werner Spies (Munich: Prestel, 1979), 79–96; and Metken, “Werkinterpretationen,” ibid., 312.

[8] Richard Shiff, “Expression: Natural, Personal, Pictorial,” in A Companion to Art Theory, ed. Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 159–73.

[9] Not only Ernst but also his fellow Surrealist exile André Breton articulated the hope of a new world order led by women. For example, in 1945 Breton explained that “the time should come to assert the ideas of woman at the expense of those of man the bankruptcy of which is today so tumultuously complete.” Cited in Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 138.

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Image Credit

Max Ernst (German, 1891–1976), L’oeil du silence (The Eye of Silence), 1943–44. Oil on canvas, 43 1/4 x 56 1/4". University purchase, Kende Sale Fund, 1946. WU 3786.