It is difficult not to wonder how Mayor Giuliani’s decency committee might have dealt with Max Ernst’s The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E. and the Artist, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ernst retrospective through July 10, had some whistleblower from the Christian Coalition solicited the mayor’s opinion of the painting. The enthroned Virgin has been spanking the Holy Boy’s bare bottom vigorously enough to have knocked His halo to the ground, while three avant-gardists–the writer and theorist André Breton, the poet Paul Éluard and Ernst himself–coolly avert their eyes from the scene, which somehow has not been depicted in canonical narratives of Jesus’s childhood. New York has been spared the all-too-familiar scenario of pious poster bearers, outraged politicians, defenders of artistic freedom citing the First Amendment, and the learned presence of art historians, theologians and perhaps psychologists explaining to viewers of The Charlie Rose Show that the Holy Boy, in the nature of His humanity, must more than once have tried his Mom’s patience. But I doubt Ernst would have been pleased by the somber spirit of cultural duty and aesthetic appraisal with which his art is being approached at the Met. No one loved a good public dust-up more than Ernst and his Dadaist comrades, who used art to assail a society they held responsible for the pointless slaughter of millions in World War I.

In his Notes pour une biographie, Ernst wrote:

The Dadas shared the desire to denounce mercilessly the infernal conditions which idiotic patriotism, supported by human stupidity, had imposed upon the era in which they were condemned to live. France’s military victory was as odious to the Dadas of Paris as Germany’s military defeat was warmly cheered by Dadas on either side of the Rhine.

Ernst had served in the German artillery on both fronts; immediately after the Armistice, he made contact with subversive artistic circles in Berlin and Zurich and organized a Dadaist group of his own in Cologne, where he participated in inflammatory exhibitions. “To us,” he said in a 1958 interview, “Dada was above all a moral reaction”:

Our rage aimed at total subversion. A horrible futile war had robbed us of five years of our existence. We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true and beautiful. My works of that period were not meant to attract but to make people scream.

Only viewers who subscribed to the highest aesthetic principles would have found anything in Ernst’s work to scream at, but “aesthetic delectation,” to borrow a phrase from Marcel Duchamp, was certainly beside the point. The work was not meant to be visually ingratiating, so it is sheer historical misjudgment to dismiss Ernst as “the worst leading painter in the twentieth century’s most visually miserable major artistic movement,” as one of my fellow critics recently put it. Artistic injury may not have been the most effective device for pricking the consciousness of patriots, but for the Dadaists creating works of conventional beauty amounted to aesthetic collaboration with the bourgeois enemy, and they were not about to betray their principles.

One of Cologne Dada’s exhibitions was held in a space that could only be entered through a men’s lavatory. It was promptly closed as an outrage against public morality on the grounds that one of the works–a 1920 Ernst collage titled The Word/She Bird–was pornographic. Ironically, the offending nude was the figure of Eve lifted directly from a 1504 print by Albrecht Dürer. How could a work by Dürer be considered pornographic? The show was allowed to reopen. Ernst and his fellow agitator Johannes Baargeld printed an incendiary poster proclaiming Dada’s victory–“Dada siegt!” But the poster had to be withdrawn because it attracted furious mobs, who destroyed much of the work inside.

The Word/She Bird survived the ruckus and can be seen in the current retrospective–Ernst’s first in New York in thirty years. It would hardly prompt anyone to riot today. But neither should the work be written off as bad, or even quaint, art. Ernst’s great contribution to Modernism lay as much in the medium of collage as in that of provocation. In The Word/She Bird, Ernst uses gouache–opaque watercolor–to screen out the crowded detail in Dürer’s image of Adam and Eve, leaving only Eve’s body, which has been set into what looks like an engraving of a sea urchin shell, doubtless cut from some cheap natural history publication. This creates an allusion to the birth of Venus, and Eve’s head has been cropped, as has her right arm at the elbow, converting her into something akin to the Venus de Milo. A segment of her right leg has been replaced with a fragment from an anatomical print, showing the circulatory system. To complete Eve’s paganization, the fig leaf that hides her shame has been carefully replaced with a pubic mons from somewhere. Headless Venus wears a dog collar; and two birds, one beneath her left arm, the other between her legs, transform her into a “she bird.” The birds, of course, are taken from a plate of ornithological illustrations. Ernst’s Venus stands in a room rather than in the Garden of Eden, marked by the kind of deep perspective that was to become one of the signature effects of Surrealism. She shares the space with an anatomical male figure, with a sort of meter stick that may or may not be an erection. The left side of the room holds what looks like a wall of curved timbers that form a ship’s hull. The whole is hand tinted. The little collage had a subsequent history. It was used by Éluard as an illustration for his 1921 book of verse, Répétitions, and it helped earn Ernst a welcome from his co-conspirators in Paris, who soon formed the cadre of the French Surrealist movement, in which the German artist became a star.

French Dadaists were wild about Ernst’s early collages, and I myself cannot resist describing another, constructed on the same principles as Word/She Bird. It is called The Master’s Bedroom, and again its base is a printed reproduction from a natural history publication, in which everything has been painted over with gouache, except for a whale and several fish that appear in the foreground. The room is once more in deep perspective, evoking a sense of great emptiness, with a sheep and a bear standing by the rear wall. It’s hard to tell whether the animals in the back of the room were part of the original print or were cut and pasted from another source. Ernst has carefully pasted in some disproportionately small furniture–a bed with a comfy quilt, a table set with a bottle of wine and a tureen, and an armoire with a tree growing up through it. The paint is applied thinly enough that one can see some submarine creatures that have been painted over. Since Ernst had studied psychoanalysis at the university in Bonn, it is tempting to view the space below the floor as a kind of unconscious–or preconscious, since the bedroom is the site of dreams, and dreams, Freud argued, were the royal road to the unconscious. It is a small, haunting work with two inscriptions, one in German and one in French, each identifying the space as Max Ernst’s bedroom, where “it is worth one’s while to spend a night.” I cannot help but think that the work alludes to Vincent’s painting of his bedroom in Arles, since van Gogh was one of Dada’s heroes.

Surrealism was still busy being born in the early 1920s, when these collages were made, but one feels that Ernst has already crossed over into Surrealism in these works, with their layered associations, Freudian overtones and sublime mysteriousness. Nothing like them had existed before. Collage, of course, had been developed by Picasso and Braque, but the difference between Cubist and (if I may use the term) Ernstian collage is stark. The Cubist collage employed an object or a fragment of a picture that fit smoothly into the picture onto which it was pasted. Braque, for example, used sheets of faux bois paper to represent the texture and color of wood. Picasso soaked the label from a bottle of Suze and pasted it onto a drawing of a bottle exactly where he would otherwise have painted a label. The Cubist collage plays with the philosophical distinction between reality and representation, using the reality to represent itself. The pictorial order is left more or less undisturbed. But so is the order of reality. There is a commonplace reality that corresponds to the Cubist still life, whether painted or collaged. Whatever liberties Picasso may have taken in representing, say, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, his classic portrait of Kahnweiler corresponds to a real person. By contrast, if there is a reality corresponding to an Ernstian collage, it is not commonplace. It is really uncanny to find fish swimming on, or just beneath, the bedroom floor. The Surrealists were fond of citing a line from Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), whom they regarded as a literary ancestor: “The chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” What Ernst achieved, according to Breton, was the possibility of new relations between “distant realities” and their “rapprochement.” It would explode our normal conception of reality to imagine that the floor of the bedroom is the surface of the sea. Only in dreams–in what the critic Rosalind Krauss has suggestively described as the “optical unconscious”–would this become possible.

Since Ernst also experimented with photomontage, the major achievement of the Berlin Dadaists, it is not entirely a digression to describe the relationship between collage and montage, a medium with revolutionary implications for the avant-garde. The high point of the Berlin Dada exhibition of 1920 was Hannah Hoch’s strident collage Sliced With the Dada Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beerbelly Cultural Epoch. It is shown in one of the installation shots of the 1920 exhibit, next to the artist, demurely swinging a golf club, and her lover, Raoul Hausmann, who claimed to have invented photomontage in 1918. He had noticed that several German households displayed lithographs of a grenadier standing in front of his barracks. Certain families had pasted in the face, taken from a photograph, of their own soldier. In a flash, Hausmann wrote, he realized that one could make pictures “entirely composed of cutout photographs.” That’s exactly what he and several of his friends–George Grosz, John Heartfield, Johannes Baader and of course Hoch–did. Through photomontage, they were able to overcome their aversion to “playing the artist,” a Dadaist theme most closely associated with Duchamp. All of a sudden, one could make art without possessing traditional artistic skills. It was this discovery that partly underlay the Duchamp “readymades” of 1913 to 1917.

The same ethos informs the poster that Heartfield and Grosz designed, proclaiming “Art Is Dead” (Die Kunst ist tot). The poster also says, “Long live the new machine art of Tatlin,” an allusion to the great Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. The Dadaists, Hausmann said, preferred to consider themselves engineers rather than artists–“hence our preference for working clothes, for overalls.” Among the other posters in the 1920 show, one read, “Dada is the voluntary decay of the world of bourgeois concepts…. One day photography will supplant and replace the whole of pictorial art.” I have little doubt that this is the inspiration behind Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”–the death of the hand.

Ernst’s contribution to this fascinating history was to eliminate painting from his collages and instead make them entirely out of cut fragments of wood engravings, which had preceded photogravure in illustrating nineteenth-century books, magazines and newspapers. He then bound these together into graphic novels, which he published as books. These collages were Surrealist in spirit–enigmatic, irrational, violent and erotic, as if they were visual transcriptions of dreams. The engravings, cut into the end-grain of woodblocks and printed in black and white on cheap paper, were, for Ernst, what Japanese prints had been for the Impressionists–depictions in a now alien mode of representation of alien forms of life. They belonged to an earlier moment in history, with men and women wearing clothing long out of fashion, and–since many of the engravings had illustrated works of fiction–people addressed one another with exaggerated, melodramatic gestures, with hands to the brow or to the heart, heads thrown back in transports of feeling. All of this had been executed with skillful crosshatching by journeyman engravers, though the drawings may have been made by Gustave Doré, or whoever illustrated the stories of Jules Verne. The pictures were of sailing ships, balloons, cannibals, monsters, icebergs, lovers. Ernst also used illustrations from scientific catalogues, showing tools, machines and specimens. In the late 1920s or early ’30s, when Ernst used these engravings, they were pictures, to use a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of a gone world. Ernst cut and pasted, fitting images together to achieve improbable effects. They were then reproduced photographically, so that the joins are all but invisible. The two main novels are La Femme cent têtes (“The Woman a Hundred Heads,” which, pronounced in French, is phonically indistinguishable from “The Woman Without a Head”–La Femme sans tête); and Une Semaine de bonté (“A Week of Kindness”).

These singular works are antithetical to the format of a large exhibition of Ernst’s work because they are small, intimate, meant to be read rather than viewed from a distance. When they are hung on the wall, as they are in the large darkened galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, the effect is simply lost. But one can now buy reprints of Une Semaine de bonté and peruse them at home with no loss of aura, contrary to Benjamin’s dour prediction that mechanical reproduction would rob art of this quality. Moreover, in looking at the books page by page, one is not only seeing the images as Ernst intended them to be seen–you are looking at them as they were meant to be looked at. The “original” collages on view in the museum show us what we were not meant to see or be distracted by–the actual scraps of paper Ernst used. Since the reproduced collages are the most engaging and fascinating works in any representative show of Ernst’s art, it is a curatorial challenge to present the rest of his oeuvre with anything like the visual excitement of the novels. Since this is all but impossible, one can hardly criticize the Metropolitan show for failing to rise to this challenge. The exhibition is an internal critique of its own limitations. By all means pay it a visit, though you can buy Une Semaine de bonté on Amazon for about the same price.