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.