Werner Speis

Werner Spies on Ernst as the inventor of the Surrealist universe

Spies, art critic and friend of the Surrealist, talks about his exhibition opening this month at the Tate Gallery

In celebration of the centenary of Max Ernst’s birth, the Tate Gallery is mounting a major retrospective of his work, opening on 13 February. The exhibition is one of the last projects initiated by Sir Alan Bowness, the former Director of the Tate Gallery, and has been brought to completion by Nick Serota, the current director — a long overdue re-assessment of one of the first, as well as one of the most consistently inventive, surrealist artists.

The selection for the exhibition, which encompasses the whole range of media from painting and sculpture, graphic work, collage and frottage (literally “rubbings”) to book illustration and theatre design, has been made by Werner Spies, the German art critic and writer. Professor Spies, who first met Ernst in 1966 and became a friend of the artist and his family, has written widely on his work and organised major Ernst exhibitions all over the world.

In conversation with The Art Newspaper, Werner Spies outlined his intentions for the centenary show:

What do you hope to achieve with this exhibition?

First, let me say how happy I am that the exhibition is beginning at the Tate, which has some of the greatest Ernsts in public possession. Among major artists of the twentieth century Ernst is certainly one of the least well known. Around seventy per cent of his works are in private hands, as will be seen in the exhibition. Most have never been exhibited before. My intention is simply to illuminate this unbelievable world that they portray and allow the visitors to the Tate to step into Ernst’s imagination. I think it will be an incredible surprise for the public

What meaning do you think Ernst’s art has for people today?

I believe that Ernst’s work is much more relevant today than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. People are much more critical of their contemporary art and Ernst is the greatest model for an artistic and intellectual re-appraisal that we could have. Levi Strauss in fact considered Max Ernst the most important artist of the twentieth century.

How easy do you think it will be for visitors to enter into Ernst’s intellectual world and understand what he is getting at in his art?

The idea of Max Ernst’s world as being too intellectual to understand is dismissed in the exhibition. There are so many visionary paintings that speak to people in an entirely visual and uncomplicated way. These wonderful pictures — landscapes, seascapes and portrayals of an imaginary world— all communicate on a direct level.

1991 seems to be a year of renaissance for surrealism, with a show of André Breton coming to the Beaubourg in Paris and Salvador Dalí at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. Do you see the grouping of these shows as pure chance or as a considered renewal of interest in this period?

I think that it is simply a need for strong images, something that is very much in demand today. The strong images presented in these artists’ works open up new avenues in the imagination and new insights into reality.

How important a figure do you consider Ernst to be in comparison with his contemporaries, especially Picasso?

Next to Picasso, Ernst is the most important figure in art of the twentieth century. He is an artist of enormous inventiveness. He was not only the greatest surrealist painter but more than a surrealist. Already in 1920 he had mapped out the whole surrealist world and the direction that Surrealism would take. Hence the subtitle of my new book, “The invention of the surrealist universe”. (Max Ernst: Collages, Thames and Hudson, February 1991.)

Why does the Tate exhibition emphasise Ernst’s paintings to the virtual exclusion of sculpture?

Some sculpture is in the show — eight pieces. I would gladly have included more but it was a question of space, and one should anyway show sculpture separately, not mixed with paintings. I would like to put on a show concentrating exclusively on Ernst’s sculpture, as I did earlier for Picasso eight years ago in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin — purely sculpture, not mixed: the impact is stronger. Let me add that I hope the show will be a great discovery for those who see it — it will certainly be the most important encounter that the late twentieth century could have with the painter.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Ernst is next to Picasso the greatest artist of the century”