Surreal thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 4

Surreal thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 4

Artist in his 50s meets young female painter in her studio. It wasn't the easiest of romances – for one thing, Max Ernst was married. Martin Gayford describes what happened next

In 1942, Max Ernst paid a visit to the New York studio of a young female artist – and was much struck by one of her pictures. It depicted the painter herself standing, bare-breasted, wearing an Elizabethan doublet and draped with seaweed. Behind her is a mirror, in front a strange creature resembling a winged lemur. Its title
was Birthday.

Ernst was so taken with the image, and with the artist – who was named Dorothea Tanning – that they subsequently played chess every day for a week and soon moved in together. The Surrealists, Tanning noted much later, perhaps from personal experience, felt "rather little" amorous fire in their loins, but a great deal in their imaginations.

The original purpose of Ernst's visit had been to select participants for an exhibition that was to be made up entirely of work by female artists – the first of its kind in the US (among those included were Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson and Méret Oppenheim). The working title of the project was '30 Women'; after Ernst's encounter with Tanning, this was amended to '31 Women'. Peggy Guggenheim – who was married to Ernst at the time – was heard to say that perhaps it would have been better to have left the list at a round 30.

An impartial observer would probably not have predicted a long-term future for this new romance. Tanning – born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois – was 19 years Ernst's junior. He was in his early 50s, with a long and complicated romantic career already behind him. The marriage to Guggenheim was his third, but Ernst had also taken part in a ménage à trois with the poet Paul Éluard and his wife Gala (before the latter took up with Salvador Dalí), and more recently a tempestuous relationship with another much younger painter, Leonora Carrington. As Ruth Brandon, author of Surreal Lives, put it, "Max was always in love – with someone other than Peggy".

This time, however, it lasted. He lived with Tanning, in what seems to have been rather un-Surrealist happiness and domestic harmony, until his death in 1976. Looking back in 1990, Tanning told an interviewer that Ernst was "clearly the only person I needed"; she had found him "not only a great man, but a wonderfully gentle and loving companion".

They had nearly met three years before that studio visit. Tanning, already fascinated by Surrealism and its exponents, had set out for Paris in 1938 equipped with letters of introduction to artists she admired, including Ernst and Picasso. Almost as soon as she arrived, war was declared, and US citizens were advised to return home. She took a train to Stockholm, where her uncle lived (her family was Swedish, the name originally 'Thaning'), and caught the last boat to New York from Gothenburg.

Ernst's journey to Manhattan was more hazardous and prolonged. He was first interned as an 'undesirable foreigner' in a camp at Aix-en-Provence in company with another Surrealist, Hans Bellmer. After the invasion of France, he was arrested by the Gestapo, but escaped, slipping across the Spanish border after having shown his work to an art-loving customs officer, and finally made his way to the USA via Portugal with the help of Peggy Guggenheim.

In his biographical notes, Ernst described his arrival on American soil. "On July 14, Max Ernst arrived at LaGuardia Airport in New York," he wrote, wryly using the third person to refer to himself. "He had hardly disembarked from the airplane when he was apprehended by immigration authorities... and interned on Ellis Island. Lovely view of the Statue of Liberty."

Ernst could be funny, in a deadpan manner – another slightly un-Surrealist trait. When asked what qualities she associated with her husband, Tanning responded, "his humor: ironic, amused, bemused". After his immigration problems were sorted out, Ernst traveled to California, New Orleans and the Southwest with Guggenheim, whom he married in December 1941. Her triplex apartment in New York became a social center for the European avant-garde in exile. A photograph from that year shows – among others – Marcel Duchamp, Léger, Mondrian, Leonora Carrington, André Breton and Ernst, all lined up on the upper floor.

The meeting of these older artists, previously based in Paris, with younger Americans such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, was one of the crucial junctures in 20th century art. Out of it came Abstract Expressionism. Ernst played a part in its birth, since exactly at this moment he invented a novel 'automatic' picture-making technique: Oscillation. This involved dripping paint from a swinging tin can, with results that clearly anticipated Pollock's celebrated method.

While his artistic influence was destined to last, his marriage to Peggy Guggenheim didn't. Asked why she was with Ernst, she replied, "Because he's so beautiful and because he's so famous." However, her promiscuity was legendary throughout the art world: when their relationship began, a former lover acidly observed, "Max Ernst is now said to be Peggy Guggenheim's consort no.3,812."

For his part, he seems to have felt mainly gratitude for her role in his flight from occupied Europe. "He considered me a sort of lady whom he was slightly afraid of," she later recalled, "and never addressed me as tu. Once, when I asked him to write something in the books he had given me, he merely wrote 'For Peggy Guggenheim from Max Ernst'." To begin with he was so "insane" with love for Leonora Carrington that he could not hide it from Peggy, then shortly after Carrington had left for Mexico, he met Tanning.

This new relationship perhaps represented another escape. This time of intense proximity for the expatriate art community in New York was, in effect, the last moment at which the Surrealist movement flared into life. After that, they had perhaps seen enough of each other, and particularly of the Surrealist 'pope', André Breton, who was forever banishing ideological deviants from the movement in a sort of art-world parody of the Inquisition – or Stalin's purges. Subsequently, Tanning observed, the Surrealists' quarrels deepened with each new row, "until, one sudden day, there was nothing left to be banished from". Asked in a truth game whether he had any friends, Breton's answer was "Non, mon ami."

By 1946, Ernst had fled again. He and Tanning moved to Sedona, Arizona, where they lived in a two-room shack without electricity or running water. "I replaced the moral loneliness of the cities", he said, "with the real loneliness of the landscape of Arizona." That December, they married in Beverly Hills in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner.

Three years later, in 1949, Ernst and Tanning returned to France, where they spent more than a quarter of a century. They settled definitively in Paris, but also bought a rustic retreat near Chinon on the Loire, a decade later shifting their country dwelling to Seillans, north of the Côte d'Azur. Ernst won the painting prize at the Venice Biennale of 1954, which led to his final exclusion from the moribund Surrealist movement – getting prizes was something of which the Surrealists disapproved. Subsequently, though, he gained much greater international recognition.

In his last 20 years, Ernst's work was shown in some 70 solo exhibitions, and six major career retrospectives. Meanwhile, as an artist, he moved into a Romantic late phase. The two paintings offered at Bonhams' Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in New York in November are superb examples of this period. Neither have previously been seen on the market. The paintings have been in Dorothea Tanning's collection since Ernst's death, and have been consigned by her family. One of the works, Je suis une femme, vous êtes un homme, sommes nous la république, brings to mind the words of art historian Jürgen Pech who argued that Ernst was concerned with "the forces of nature and of life"; his "cosmic pictorial worlds approach the faraway, the infinity of space". Ernst intended his art to be both childlike and touched by deep notes of fear and tragedy. There is only half a turn of the wheel, Ernst noted, between the "time of fear" and the second, deliberate "childhood of art".

Art was part of Ernst and Tanning's life together. They showed each other their work, she recalled, "rather formally, with serious, but brief, comments; but we didn't talk about craft". In 1975, a year before Ernst's death, they were interviewed by Andy Warhol. Most of his questions were wonderfully inconsequential – about clothes, cooking, the weather in Paris. But he was also interested in Ernst's productivity. Did he do one painting a day? Two? "What an idea!", Tanning replied on her husband's behalf. "He paints when he feels like it!" Evidently, in some respects, he retained the Surrealist spirit.

Martin Gayford's forthcoming book, A History of Pictures: from Cave to Computer Screen, was co-written with David Hockney.

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