By Nicole Fetkowitz
Max Ernst described his birth in 1891 as having hatched from an egg that his mother laid. His wild imagination is manifested not only in his autobiography but in his paintings of bizarre-mythical beings and strange desolate landscapes, which he attributed to his traumatic childhood and a long-standing belief in the occult. In discussing his life, he recalled seven significant events that altered his frame of mind and approach to art marking. Four of these occur in his youth when in 1897 when he first began to experience “the feeling of nothingness” after the death of his sister, Maria. It is also at this time he contracted measles and had hallucinations of various figures, most notably “a menacing nightingale” – a figure that would make countless appearances in his work and later inspire the creation of Two Children Are Threatened By A Nightingale (1924).
Ernst recalls being both scared and excited by these hallucinations. Once his measles were cured he took up the hobby of “looking” in which he would stare at “wood-panels, clouds, wallpapers, unplastered walls,” etc, in an attempt to let his imagination take over and create new visions. He used this method while drawing and painting as a way to pry fantastical imagery out of his subconscious. Ernst was also inspired by his father Philip, who had been commissioned by the church in their hometown of Bruhl (Germany) to recreate classic masterpieces. Philip would often take liberties with the originals and substituted the faces of his family and friends for those of the saints and angels. Despite openly rejecting his father’s use of realism, many historians believe that Philip’s role in Max’s life influenced his painting style greatly. In 1898 Ernst watched his father paint a realist landscape and began to feel the need to connect the creations of his imagination with the imagery of the natural world.
The need to merge the natural and mythical worlds was reinforced in 1906 with the death of his beloved pet cockatoo and the birth of his sister, Loni. Both events caused Ernst such anxiety that he allowed his imagination to connect birth with death, as well as the existence of animals with humans. He went about creating a bird alter-ego named Loplop (“a superior of birds”) who is believed to be the voice and inspiration for much of his work. As such, Loplop was a manifestation of his confusion and psychological anguish.
Rather then repressing his childhood memories, and the German cultural symbolism he was raised with, Ernst followed Sigmund Freud’s dictum to“…analyze the symbolism in his dreams and other unguarded thoughts.” Many researchers quote Freud’s Totem and Taboo to explain Loplop’s existence, suggesting that this alter ego “functions as a symptom of Ernst’s desire to create an art of the unconscious,” as well as a symbol of honor, protection, commemoration and inspiration that may not be accessible outside of Ernst’s mind. Simply put, he worshipped Loplop just as many indigenous religions worship totems. Versions of Loplop are found most notably in Loplop, Superior of the Birds, Ocell de Foc, and Ubu Imperator. Samantha Kavky notes that Loplop is an ever-changing character, “ranging from a whimsical humanoid to menacing bird,” reflecting Ernst’s conflicts with his sexual identity and personality. Marcel Duchamp expressed a similar outlet with his alter-ego, Rrose Selavy. However, unlike Ernst, Rrose Selavy was treated as an entirely different human being while Loplop was treated as more of an artistic symbol and outlet of inspiration.
When he began to work exclusively with the Surrealist, Andre Brenton in 1927 regarded Ernst’s work as “the marvelous faculty of attaining two widely separate realities without departing from the realm of our experience, of bringing them together and drawing a spark from their contact… and of disorienting us in our own memory by depriving us of a frame of reference.” Brenton furthered suggested that the goal of his paintings was to fuse the natural and imaginative worlds together. Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale – a collage based mainly on Maria’s death, Loni’s birth and how own fever-visions – is a prime example of Ernst’s uncertainty in confining painting to the boundaries of the frame. A female figure fights off a nightingale with a knife at the bottom left beside an open gate, while a second figure lay collapsed on the ground beside her. The right half of the piece is comprised of a wooden house, on top of which stands a man holding an infant. The man holds an outstretched arm toward the blue doorknob attached to the frame, as if he is attempting to flee the scene altogether. The whole event takes place under a vivid, multicolor sky that could represent either dusk or dawn, however dawn was the time at which Ernst discovered simultaneously that his best animal friend had died and his new sister was born. This unusual rendering helped spawn a creative genius whose traumatic memories and imagined personas were allowed to live out freely on the canvas.