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Max Ernst, in 1924, who best fulfilled the Surrealist's mandate

Max Ernst... Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924. Oil on wood with painted wood elements and frame). 

http://www.moma.org/collection/printable_view.php?object_id=79293

Max Ernst. Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale. 1924

Dada, June 18–September 11, 2006

Made in 1924, the year of Surrealisms founding, Ernst described this work as "the last consequence of his [sic] early collages—and a kind of farewell to a technique..." He later gave two possible autobiographical references for the nightingale: the death of his sister in 1897, and a fevered hallucination he recalled in which the wood grain of a panel near his bed took on "successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a birds head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on."

Publication excerpt
John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981, p. 206


It was Max Ernst, in 1924, who best fulfilled the Surrealist's mandate. Ernst did it above all in the construction called Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, which starts from one of those instincts of irrational panic which we suppress in our waking lives. Only in dreams can a diminutive songbird scare the daylights out of us; only in dreams can the button of an alarm bell swell to the size of a beach ball and yet remain just out of our reach. Two Children incorporates elements from traditional European painting: perspectives that give an illusion of depth, a subtly atmospheric sky, formalized poses that come straight from the Old Masters, a distant architecture of dome and tower and triumphal arch. But it also breaks out of the frame, in literal terms: the alarm or doorbell, the swinging gate on its hinge and the blind-walled house are three-dimensional constructions, physical objects in the real world. We are both in, and out of, painting; in, and out of, art; in and out of, a world subject to rational interpretation. Where traditional painting subdues disbelief by presenting us with a world unified on its own terms, Max Ernst in the Two Children breaks the contract over and over again. We have reason to disbelieve the plight of his two children. Implausible in itself, it is set out in terms which eddy between those of fine art and those of the toyshop. Nothing "makes sense" in the picture. Yet the total experience is undeniably meaningful; Ernst has re-created a sensation painfully familiar to us from our dreams but never before quite recaptured in art—that of total disorientation in a world where nothing keeps to its expected scale or fulfills its expected function.

It was Max Ernst, in 1924, who best fulfilled the Surrealist's mandate. Ernst did it above all in the construction called Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, which starts from one of those instincts of irrational panic which we suppress in our waking lives. Only in dreams can a diminutive songbird scare the daylights out of us; only in dreams can the button of an alarm bell swell to the size of a beach ball and yet remain just out of our reach. Two Children incorporates elements from traditional European painting: perspectives that give an illusion of depth, a subtly atmospheric sky, formalized poses that come straight from the Old Masters, a distant architecture of dome and tower and triumphal arch. But it also breaks out of the frame, in literal terms: the alarm or doorbell, the swinging gate on its hinge and the blind-walled house are three-dimensional constructions, physical objects in the real world. We are both in, and out of, painting; in, and out of, art; in and out of, a world subject to rational interpretation. Where traditional painting subdues disbelief by presenting us with a world unified on its own terms, Max Ernst in the Two Children breaks the contract over and over again. We have reason to disbelieve the plight of his two children. Implausible in itself, it is set out in terms which eddy between those of fine art and those of the toyshop. Nothing "makes sense" in the picture. Yet the total experience is undeniably meaningful; Ernst has re-created a sensation painfully familiar to us from our dreams but never before quite recaptured in art—that of total disorientation in a world where nothing keeps to its expected scale or fulfills its expected function.

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