(For larger version, click on image. Europe After the Rain, 1940-42, Wadsworth Athenaeum)
“We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well.”—Alfred Jarry
Medium of war, Max Ernst. Europe After the Rain remains his pullulating masterpiece, in which emotional desolation, physical exhaustion, and fears of the destructive power of total warfare combine—after the rain of fire, the biblical deluge, and the reign of terror. The title dates back to an earlier painting sculpted from plaster and oil (and painted on plywood from the set of L’Âge d’or) to create an imaginary relief map of a remodeled Europe completed in 1933, the year Hitler took power.
(Europe After the Rain, I, 1933, private collection)
To create these rotting, mineral surfaces, Ernst used decalcomania, applying painted glass to the canvas and slowly pulling it off, then letting the diverse forms that result suggest figures that might be touched up or outlined with sky. It’s an analogical and hallucinatory method, intensified by the neurotoxic solvents in oil paints. With its intricately detailed surface, the piece is difficult to read in reproduction, but the figures that leap out include the bird-headed spear carrier looking to the left, perhaps at the armless nude with her back turned and flat-topped hat, perhaps at the central pillar’s verdigris breasts. Below, a bull seemingly on rails lies crushed under a pavilion like a rotting merry-go-round holding another nude female torso inside. To the left, five women wearing ornate dresses and hats lounge in sandstone hollows.
If Europe—meaning the idea of Europe as font of culture and bastion of art—has been wiped out by the Nazi deluge, what’s left are the bullet-riddled, coral remains housing new forms of life. As W. G. Sebald wrote of the refugees in fire-bombed cities: “The ruins where they lived were the terra incognita of the war.” But Ernst and the surrealist had already mapped those psychic territories, maps subsequently used in post-apocalyptic novels such as J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and Alan Burns’ experimental Europe After the Rain, not to mention the music of John Foxx.
The history of the painting is intimately tied up with his flight from France at the start of the war. In the late 1930s, Max Ernst lived with the painter Leonora Carrington in the village of Saint-Martin d’Ardeche not far from Nimes, in a building he decorated with elaborate sculptures. An enemy national, Max is imprisoned for much of 1939 in French prison camps, sharing a cell at Les Milles converted from an old brick oven with Hans Bellmer (who drew Max’s portrait composed of brick). Together, Ernst and Bellmer experiment with decalcomania, leading to Ernst’s explorations on his release.
Although freed that Christmas, the situation grew increasingly dire in May, 1940, when Max is alleged to have signaled the enemy, landing him back at Les Milles. As the Nazis advance that June, the prisoners are put on trains initially heading to Marseille, then turning around for Bayonne Harbor, and finally, after the signing of the second armistice with the Nazi regime, they are brought to a camp at Saint-Nicolas near Nîmes. Max escapes twice, returning to Saint Martin only to find that Leonora had fled to Spain during his incarceration, where she was admitted to a hospital as a schizophrenic (a period she details in Down Below, originally published in VVV #4).
(Max Ernst, Jacqueline Breton, André Masson, André Breton, Varian Fry)
It’s at this point, longing for Carrington, that Max begins painting his second Europe After the Rain, helped by Joë Bosquet, who purchases his other pieces. When contacted by Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee about an asylum offer, Max leaves for Marseille and joins Breton and other friends, also waiting to get passage to the United States.
Months pass in Marseille, during which he works with his son Jimmy to try to secure visas for himself and Jimmy’s mother, Lou, long divorced from Ernst. When their efforts fail, Lou turns down his offers to marry her again, believing the situation will improve. Peggy Guggenheim, also in Marseille seeking to return to the U.S., meets Max and becoming lovers of a sort, the two agree to meet in Lisbon, where the Guggenheim family will send a plane to take her and her former husband, Laurence Vail, his wife, the writer Kay Boyle, and his daughter daughter with Peggy, Pegeen. Ernst is almost turned away at Spain’s border, but the decalcomania technique on paintings he carries with him (including Europe) so intrigued the border agent that he turns a blind eye to Ernst’s entry.
On July 14, 1941, Max Ernst arrives at La Guardia airport, from which immigration officials whisk him off to Ellis Island for his son Jimmy to claim. Lou Ernst is far from lucky and, as Jimmy details in his memoir, will be placed on Transport 76 on June 30, 1944, the penultimate transport train from Paris, to be murdered in Auschwitz.
(Artists in Exile Front row left to right: Matta Echaurren, Ossip Zadkine, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger. Second row: André Breton, Piet Mondrian, André Masson, Amédée Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann and Eugene Berman. Credt: George Platt Lynes/WR5)
Europe After the Rain is only completed after Ernst sorts out his new life in New York City, first at the Great Northern Hotel on West 57th, then in the triplex Peggy picks out on the East River. It receives its first public viewing at the Pierre Matisse Gallery’s “Artists in Exile” exhibit (find it on the Surrealism in New York map), pulling together individual works by the major artist refugees. Rosamund Frost writing in ART News describes the painting as “the most optimistic commentary on destruction we’ve seen yet.” Following the exhibit, Chick Austin acquired it for the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut, which rarely lends it out.
Less then two months later, British RAF bombers devastated Ernst former home Cologne in 262 separate air raids, culminating with a 1,000 bombers firebombing the city on the night of May 30-31. News of the aerial bombings along with reports of successful nuclear fission in Berlin in 1939, spread rapidly with coverage in Time Magazine and elsewhere, justifying fears of the destructive power of new classes of weapons and their use in total warfare. Uptown, Columbia University was already separating the fissile isotope uranium 235 from uranium 238.
Yet prophecy is a tricky business. Like reading the organs of a sacrificial bull, more images, contradictory images, arise at the decalcomaniac’s hand. The storm clouds have retreated, the sky is a gorgeous hazy blue, and instead we might be looking at the red sandstone landscape of the Southwest, which Ernst had visited the summer of 1941 and to which he’d move with Dorothea Tanning in 1946. As Ernst said of Arizona in a 1967 interview: “There I found the old familiar landscape that had continually been in my mind’s eye and which had repeatedly appeared in my paintings, too. Now, I don’t pretend that this was the result of some cheap, prophetic gift of mine. It was sheer accident that the landscape was there and that my pictures were there and had emerged at a point in time before I had ever seen the landscape. You might the call it the result of hasard objectif, or ‘objective chance,’ which was how Breton explained it at any rate.”
Nonetheless, Ernst went on to note: “When peace returned and I had become an American citizen, I felt the urge to see Europe again. Sometime before I had painted a picture called Europe After the Rain and I was interested to see whether this picture could correspond to what I would actually find there. In fact, the picture was really not so far off the mark at all.”
L’Âge d’or by Paul Hammond (BFI Film Classics, 1997)
A Not-So Still Life by Jimmy Ernst (Puschcart Press, 1984)
Between Lives by Dorothea Tanning (W. W. Norton, 2001)
Europe After the Rain by Alan Burns (Calder,1965)
J. G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination by Jeannette Baxter (Ashgate, 2009)
Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L. Alberth (Lund Humphries, 2004)
Max Ernst: Life and Work by Werner Spies (Thames & Hudson, 2006)
Max Ernst (documentary), directed by Peter Schamoni (Peter Schamoni-Film, 1991), source of Arizona quote originally appearing in Max Ernst, Selbstportrait, by Hannes Reinhardt and Werner Spies (NDR, 1967)
On the Natural HIstory of Destruction by W. G. Sebald (Modern Library, 2004)
Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School by Martica Sawin (MIT Press, 1995)
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