Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride exemplifies the contradictions and complexities of Surrealist painting, simultaneously interwoven with autobiographical detail. In this article, Singulart considers this masterpiece by Max Ernst in the context of his life and Surrealism.
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 characterized 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.
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 is happening in The Robing of the Bride?
The Robing of the Bride depicts four figures in a sparsely decorated, almost medieval interior. The central figure is a woman, presumably the Bride, who wears a red gown open at the front to reveal her nude body, crowned with a large bird-like headdress. To her left, a small green bird-man holds a spear and to her right she seems to be blocking another purple figure, with strange webbed hair. In the bottom right hand corner crouches a small creature, between man, woman and sea creature. Behind this group of figures is a framed picture of the central female figure, in the same dress, against a blue sky. The Robing of the Bride is an excellent example of Surrealism as Max Ernst defined it: “the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of Surreality so to speak.”
The Robing of the Bride is full of contradictions and contrasts, such as the harsh juxtaposition of the regal elegance of the costumes and the background with its bright colors and macabre monstrous forms. Ernst used another experimental technique in The Robing of the Bride, known as “decalcomania”, in which he pressed diluted paint onto the surface with an object in order to unevenly distribute the paint and create unexpected textures.
In terms of identifying a meaning behind The Robing of the Bride, the bird-man is often considered to refer to Ernst himself, as his alter-ego “Loplop” the bird appeared in many of his works. The Bride is thought to be Leonora Carrington, the English Surrealist artist with whom Ernst had a relationship during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. However it is the general discordance and ambivalence of the painting’s meaning which makes it such a prominent example of Surrealism and its contradictions.