Yak Attack

A place to unwind and spend some time yakking.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dear readers, let's yak about art.

Please give a warm round of applause for Yak Attack’s first regular feature. Each week, I’m going to highlight an artist. I’ve had such a blast checking out Artcyclopedia, that I want to continue combing through their archives. Art history was my major in college, too, so it’s been refreshing to dust off some of those memories and create new ones.

In the movie, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, Abby (Janeane Garofalo) makes a quip about “Dada meets Fido,” when she looks at Brian’s (Ben Chaplin) photos. I’m not familiar with the Dada art movement, so this is where my quest for this week’s artist began.

Dada, it turns out, was a short lived movement that sprang up in Europe as a protest against World War 1, traditional conservative thought and the middle class’ preoccupation with materialism. Nihilist in nature, the artists’ of the Dada movement produced “anti-art,” striving to subscribe no inherent meaning to their work. 1916 to 1920 are the most active years of Dada artists. Surrealism evolved from the ashes of dadaism. You might say these two artist groups are the “punks of art,” since they embrace similar nihilist attitude, characteristic of punk bands.

Max Ernst, Yak Attack’s artist of the week, was part of the Cologne, Germany Dada group. In 1922, he moved to Montparnasse, an artist community in Paris, and became involved in surrealism. He was still in Paris when World War 2 broke out, and was one of the artists that Varian Fry helped rescue from the Nazis.

Ernst loved to experiement with different artistic techniques and this experimentation led to his invention of frottage, which involved making a pencil rubbing of a textured surface. The radomness of the resulting image appealed to dadaist theory. He also poineered the surrealist technique of grattage, which involves scraping off paint from the canvas. The paint is typically dry when it is scraped off.

A wild example of Ernst’s work while he was in Cologne is The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses. It has a cellular feel combined with clockwork mechanisms that dominate the painting. Earthy browns and blacks, accented with hot dog mustard yellow, create the color scheme. I get a kick out of the middle organism that appears to have wings—Mr. Potato Head or the boss mushroom-headed creature from Super Mario Brothers? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Loplop Introduces a Young Girl, painted in 1930, when Ernst was living in Montparnasse, features the bird-slash-human creature Loplop. This is Ernst’s bird alter-ego, which guest-hosts in many of his paintings. The various medium (plaster, oil and other materials on wood) used give this painting fun dimension and texture. The clock-like dial looks to me like it’s bleeding—maybe it was a sign of the times, with the turmoil mounting in Europe, or what the future holds for women. The tiny frog at the bottom is so minuscule, watching the action unfold above.

The Temptation of St. Anthony was produced in 1945, when Ernst resided in the US, after Fry helped him escape World War 2 Paris and the Nazis. The scene in this painting is incredibly detailed and nightmarish, depicting the skirmishes St. Anthony had with demonic creatures as he sought solitude in a tomb outside his village’s boundary. This painting was produced during the time period his marriage toPeggy Guggenheim (who helped Fry liberate Ernst) fell apart and before he married Dorthea Tanning in 1946. Perhaps some of Ernst’s emotional stress leaked out on the canvas as well?

His humor shows up in several of his painting, like in the infamous The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre' Brenton, Paul E'luard, and the Painter. Painted back in 1926, it was met with much resistance. Look at the painters’ faces, though, in the window and the Virgin Mary’s exhausted look. Being mother to the Messiah couldn’t have been easy, and it shows on her face. The details, like toddler Jesus’ rosy cheeks and his halo falling to the floor, make the Christ child more approachable.

I encourage you to browse through the catalogue of Ernst’s work. He used a suprising array of colors and styles through out his career, constantly evading the tumble into a stylistic rut.


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