Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain II, 1940-42, Oil on canvas, 54 x 146 cm

I first saw Europe After the Rain II at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Max Ernst retrospective in 2005. I wasn’t really expecting to like the show. Back then I viewed Ernst as somewhat of a parlor-trick surrealist. But I was soon knocked out by the incredibly idiosyncratic physicality of his paintings and collages – aspects of which are flattened in reproduction. What initially struck me about this specific painting was the collision between the opacity of the pale blue sky and the translucent, stain-like, dirty, murky, warmth of the ground. The conventional horizon line implies a place that is tangible, but really the “ground” is just a bunch of squished paint that has been partially removed from the surface – the product of decalcomania. There is a conceit here: the landscape is only what it is because the opaque blue makes it so, seemingly clarifying form from atmosphere through stark contrast. But this familiar order is a wafer thin veil; this is not an ordered world. The painting bristles with incongruities; it is flat and spatial, heavy and weightless, Earthlike and Martian, rational and irrational. And beyond any of those dichotomies is a different truth; this place is an abyss in disguise. The sky is more solid than the land. I used to get the same feeling as a kid when I would look at clouds out of an airplane window, but this painting is…darker than that.

Europe After the Rain is a painting that physically embodies the trials of fascism (a good, if somber, reminder these days). Begun in Europe in 1940, the painting was left behind as Ernst escaped a Nazi-occupied France. He reunited with the substrate in New York a year or so later and finished the painting in safer environs. It was labeled as Degenerate Art by Hitler’s regime. And his critics had a point; Europe After the Rain is a painting that concerns the degenerate, although not in the way they were thinking. Hitler was looking in a mirror. This is a portrait of a culture in the late stages of psychic rot.

Puvis De Chavannes, The River, ca 1864, Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 51 x 99 1/4 inches

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 56 x 32 inches

There is something body-like – both vicious and viscous – about the surface. It is as if the skin has been removed from the nationalist austerity of a Puvis de Chavannes painting. An elderly Goya might nod in solidarity with the nastiness of this space; a landscape seemingly made out of the same stuff as Saturn Devouring His Son. At the forefront of Surrealism, and Dada before that, Ernst’s use of decalcomania was interesting not only because the surface effect is so lush – although that is important, with its gurgling and intestinal ruin-like connotations – but also because the operation of applying and transferring paint from one surface to another allows Ernst to create something that he cannot control, and then use it as a stage for his own intuitions and editorializations. Maybe this wrestling with chance, or the attempt to control chaos, is a metaphor for his exiled status. What makes Ernst different from many of his imagistic peers is that he doesn’t directly describe Freudian dreams, at least not in his best work. Instead he uses material processes to liberate the imagination, thereby bringing to consciousness some of the operations of the unconscious mind.

But Ernst’s mind is confronting an external reality that resembles a nightmare. His painting becomes an act of protest via a dream state. It is the embodiment of his subjective experience provoked by the apocalypse of World War II. Max Ernst survived Nazism, but his unstable and churning painting bears an imprint of the depravities that he escaped.

Norm Paris, Monument II, 2019, Graphite on Paper, 100 x 72 inches

Norm Paris is an artist, curator, and teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. He has had solo exhibitions at The Proposition, New York, NY and Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York, and is a professor at Rhode Island School of Design.