What Can Max Ernst’s Secret Symbols Tell Us About Surrealism?

An exhibition at Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, Berlin, sheds new light on the artist’s fascination with ancient Egypt

Language is the key to culture, but what if the lock is jammed? This was the case with ancient Egyptian culture until the late 18th century. Archaeologists had already discovered a number of artefacts before this time – temple ruins, sarcophagi, writings on papyrus – but their grasp of the civilization’s language remained slippery. In 1799, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt, French scholars discovered a surviving fragment of a temple in Rosetta and our understanding of Egyptian history shifted. On the granite stone the decree to guarantee land to the temples of Egypt is inscribed in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian Demotic and Ancient Greek. The importance of the stone as a tool for deciphering the pictorial sign system of hieroglyphs was immediately recognized, and slowly the lock opened.

In a museum dedicated to surrealism, you might not expect to find hieroglyphs and Egyptian artefacts. And yet they feature prominently in Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg’s current Max Ernst exhibition, ‘Stealer of Marks’. At the entrance, the seven-metre-tall temple gate of Kalabsha (c.20 BCE) portrays archaic drawings and patterns. Unlike many other artefacts unearthed in Egypt and kept in Germany, the gate was not stolen. The Egyptian government gave it to Germany as a gift when they collaborated on saving the Kalabsha temple. Since 1977, the gate has stood on the same site as the building that formerly hosted the Egyptian Museum of West Berlin, re-opened in 2007 as Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg.

Max Ernst, Untitled, 1971, lithograph. Courtesy: Max Ernst Museum Brühl and Max Ernst Foundation; photograph: Harald Blondiau © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

Even though one of Ernst’s most precious belongings was from Egypt, he never travelled there himself. An eye-shaped desert stone he always carried with him and used as a talisman is displayed on a pedestal in the archway of the Kalabsha gate. Known as The Eye of the Sphinx and given to him by the artist Roland Penrose in 1929, it marks the first of many connections between Ernst and ancient Egypt. While some of the show’s links are rather indirect and subtle, the lithograph Sphinx (1939/59) boasts an obvious fascination with Egyptian culture, showing the mythical creature looking towards the horizon with its wings spread out. The sphinx re-appears on ancient papyrus drawings borrowed from Berlin’s Egyptian collection, which are displayed alongside; these are annotated with hieroglyphics and unidentifiable signs that are labelled as magic incantations and characters. Visually similar characters are in a letter Ernst wrote to his friend, the film director Peter Schamoni. Scrawled in charcoal, the letter looks chaotic: the relationship between individual characters appears to be indeterminate. Studying each character individually, certain elements become clear: strokes are tangled, twisted, but mostly they seem to form bodies in motion. They might not be as concrete as the birds, owls and snakes we know from Egyptian hieroglyphics, but then the tendency towards ambiguity has always been a part of the surrealist mindset.

Max Ernst, ‘Stealer of Marks’, 2018, exhibition view at Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, Berlin. Courtesy: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; photograph: David von Becker © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018

The exhibition title describes Ernst as a stealer of marks who enjoyed covering his inspirations and tracks, but not in the case of Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel. In the 19th century Tempel, a self-taught astronomer, had discovered several comets, star nebulae and a small planet called ‘Maximiliana’ with a simple telescope, though trained experts didn’t acknowledge his work. Ernst, who also had no academic degree, sympathized with the amateur astronomer and dedicated an entire book project to him in collaboration with the artist Iliazd. The first pages of Maximiliana ou l’exercice illégal de l’astronomie (Maximiliana or The Illegal Practice of Astronomy, 1964) contain drawings of stars, suns and galactic spheres alongside texts by Tempel, floating, constellation-like, on the paper. Other spreads show dynamic scribbles and semi-abstract figures as well as Ernst’s self-invented ciphers, which appear here for the first time. The script runs smoothly and naturally over the sheets, as if its meaning were obvious and self-explanatory. The characters bend into squiggles and, when you look more closely at the abstract signs, they suddenly seem to move. Stick figures with arms and legs stretched out are dancing between the lines.

Max Ernst, Maximiliana ou l’exercice illégal de l'astronomie (Maximiliana or The Illegal Practice of Astronomy), 1964, etchings, aquatint etchings and stereotype on folded double sheets. Courtesy: Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018

Even though many other works in the exhibition prove that Ernst worked across different media – painting, collage, frottage and sculpture – and was inspired by disciplines spanning psychoanalysis to archaic cultures and natural phenomena, these book pages are probably the most fascinating. Maximiliana doesn’t present Ernst as a thief but as an inventor who questioned traditional and accepted norms – whether of art, writing or even science. Unlike the écriture automatique (automatic writing) that surrealist authors like André Breton used, Ernst’s cryptograph doesn’t seem to have evolved from the unconscious. Its logic, signs and syntax are so precise that they form a new pictorial language – even if it’s one we don’t understand. For decades, art historians and semioticians have tried to decipher it but, so far, no one has succeeded and no documents have been found to dissect the script. Some secrets simply don’t want to be revealed and that’s exactly what makes them so precious. 

Max Ernst, 'Stealer of Marks' runs at Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, Berlin, until 28 April 2019.

Main image: Max Ernst, 'Stealer of Marks', 2018, exhibition view at Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, Berlin. Courtesy: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; photograph: David von Becker © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018

Carina Bukuts is a writer and curator based in Berlin, where she works as the frieze Editorial Trainee. She is the co-founder of the online magazine PASSE-AVANT.

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