Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Antipope: Max Ernst’s Surreal, Mysterious Portrait

Max Ernst’s The Antipope is a surreal figurative work that exemplifies his fantastical surrealist style and also represents aspects of his tumultuous personal life. In this article, Singulart investigates the life of Max Ernst and the meaning behind the singular work that is The Antipope.

Who was Max Ernst? 

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a key figure of the Dada and Surrealist movements in the early 20th century. Born in Bruhl, near Cologne, he studied philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, art history and literature at the University of Bonn. During his studies he visited asylums and developed a fascination with the art created by the patients. It was at this that he also began to paint, sketching from nature and painting portraits of his sister and self-portraits. In 1912, he experienced the works of Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin for the first time at an exhibition in Cologne which had a huge influence on him. He began to exhibit his work with the Das Junge Rheinland group the same year, with his paintings of this time characterised by grotesque imagery mixed with Cubist and Expressionist motifs. In 1914, Ernst met the artist Hans Arp in Cologne and they developed a long lasting and collaborative friendship. 

 Max Ernst in 1968,  The Antipope
Max Ernst in 1968

Just after Ernst finished his studies, World War I broke out and he was conscripted and served on the Western and Eastern Fronts. In 1918, he returned to Cologne and married Luise Straus, an art history student he had met before the war. The following year, along with the artist Paul Klee, he studied the paintings of Giorgio de Chrico in Munich, which would have a profound effect on the development of Ernst’s style and technique, most specifically on his experiments with collage. Along with activist Johannes Theodor Baargeld and other avant-garde figures, Ernst founded the Dada group in Cologne in the same year. In 1921 he met Paul Eluard, with whom he formed a life-long friendship and who bought many of Ernst’s works. 

In 1922, having failed to obtain the necessary paperwork, Ernst moved to France illegally, leaving his wife and son behind in Germany, and lived with Eluard and his wife in Paris. 

During this time Ernst developed an alter-ego character in his painting, inspired by his fascination with birds which he named “Loplop”. In 1927 he married Marie-Berthe Aurenche and it is thought their relationship inspired the erotic subject matter that was prevalent in his work at the time. In 1938 he met the American heiress and patron Peggy Guggenheim, who bought many of Ernst’s works and exhibited them in London. 

After the outbreak of World War II, Ernst was sent to a camp for “undesirable foreigners” in Aix-en-Provence along with fellow German artist Hans Bellmer, however he was released a few weeks later thanks to the intervention and testimonies of friends Paul Eluard and others. He was later arrested by the Gestapo during the German Occupation of France but escaped with the help of Peggy Guggenheim and fled to America. Guggenheim and Ernst were married from 1942 to 1946. His arrival in New York coincided with that of many other European artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall, and his work was an inspiration on Abstract Expressionism. Soon after the end of his marriage to Peggy Guggenheim, he married the artist Dorothea Tanning in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in California and the couple moved to Sedona, Arizona where they lived and worked until 1953, inspired by the desert landscapes. In 1954, Ernst won the Grand Prize for painting at the Venice Biennale. He died in Paris in 1976, having finally obtained both French and American citizenship and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

What’s happening in The Antipope?

Max Ernst, The Antipope, 1942
Max Ernst, The Antipope, 1942

The Antipope depicts five fantastical hybrid figures standing by a lake. To the left, a female figure in a red dress, with a horse’s head and abstracted owl-like headdress looks towards the three other figures to the right. There is a human-esque figure whose back is turned to the viewer and who appears shrouded in the bones and insides of a bird. The three other figures are locked in strange embrace, with a female figure draped in pink, slumped between a green, elfen female figure and another female figure with a horses head, a wig and what looks to be medieval armour. 

What’s the meaning behind The Antipope?

The Antipope was painted shortly after Ernst’s move to America, which was helped by Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst created a small scale study for The Antipope the same year, that Guggenheim interpreted as a depiction of herself, Ernst and her daughter Pegeen. However, this was painted during a turbulent time in Ernst’s love life, when despite having just married Guggenheim, he was also involved with Leonara Carrington, with whom he spent hours riding horses. Thus when it came to the full-scale composition of The Antipope, it can be said that Ernst combined their two passions: birds for him and horses for her. He also changed the composition and the gestures of the figures from the original image interpreted by Guggenheim, thus suggesting a shift in the focus of the interpretation towards representing his situation with Carrington. Shortly after this painting was finished, Carrington moved to Mexico with her husband, thus ending their relationship and Ernst remained married to Guggenheim until 1946. 

See similar artwork in Singulart’s Inspired by Max Ernst collection.

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