Despite several major exhibitions of his work that have been held in Japan since the 1970s, Max Ernst is still widely considered here to be one of the most difficult and obscure of the Surrealists. Constantly exploring new ideas, methods and materials, his art is perhaps less instantly recognizable than that of, say, Rene Magritte or Salvador Dali, and less easily fathomed. Presenting a solo exhibition of the artist to a public still largely unaware of Ernst’s range, concerns and importance thus poses some challenges.
While other shows have attempted to present, and interpret, his work according to the core concepts of the Surrealists, “Max Ernst — Figure × Scape,” at the Yokohama Museum of Art tries the different tactic of situating his art within the more familiar traditions of landscape and figure painting. Several works early in the exhibition explore the theme of the forest — mysterious, primeval places that seem to hold dark secrets. Like many of his other works in oils, these images are highly textured, not in the sense of loosely dripped paint but by highly controlled play with palette knife in the application of paint that nonetheless keeps the picture plane flat — what the exhibition’s curator, Naoaki Nakamura calls the “pictorial” texture of the works.
The concern with flatness can also be seen in Ernst’s textured lithographs and in his collages, where fragments of photographs and illustrations are put together and then photographed to provide a heightened sense of pictorial unity. A clear example of this is “Santa Conversazione” (1921), in which a somewhat disturbing woman-bird-mechanical apparatus hybrid appears organic at first glance. More often, Ernst’s imaginary figures are whimsical and almost cartoon-like and, considering Japan’s love affair with characters and mascots, the organizers hope this will attract those unfamiliar with the artist and his creations.
While many of the Surrealists and their Dadaist forebears talked about overthrowing the then-accepted art canon, this exhibition sees Ernst carrying on from the Renaissance ideal of a perfect representation of human figures and landscape through mathematical knowledge — and then changing that grounding. You can also see Ernst breaking down the categories of landscape and figure in a number of works where vegetation is inseparable from animal life, creating amorphous and fantastic natural forms.
There are more than 150 works in the exhibition, many rarely shown to the public before and a surprising number from Japanese institutions. Nakamura explains that the large amount of Surrealist works collected in Japan can be attributed to the rise of prefectural and municipal museums in the ’70s and ’80s. Such museums considered Surrealism to be the most important development in 20th-century Western art and so focused on the movement when they began building collections. Ernst fans, old and new, will be grateful that they did.
“Max Ernst — Figure × Scape” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till June 24; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Thu. www.yaf.or.jp/yma/jiu/2012/ernst/index.html.