The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

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MAY 2017 Issue

Max Ernst Big Brother: Teaching Staff for a School of Murderers

Installation view: BIG BROTHER—TEACHING STAFF FOR A SCHOOL OF MURDERERS, Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, March 30 – May 13, 2017. © 2017 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Diego Flores & Christopher Stach / Paul Kasmin Gallery.

On View
Paul Kasmin Gallery
March 30 – May 13, 2017
New York

In the original title of Max Ernst’s extraordinary bronze statues of 1967, Corps enseignant pour une école de tueurs (Teaching Staff for a School of Murderers), there is no specific reference to a “Big Brother.” However, here marking the show’s central figure as the initial focus of one’s gaze now brings us closer to George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, itself looming over us once again. Anxiety abounds, with all the watching of the watcher.

As I went to view Ernst’s current show at Paul Kasmin, the rain pouring down did nothing to allay that anxiety, no more than current events. That the two guardian angels, if you like, of Big Brother (and these are some angels!) should be called Séraphin-chérubin and Séraphin le néophyte makes the irony of the whole thing still more ghastly. Big Brother’s “hat” swoops down over his face, his features nowhere—only eyes you can see entirely through from the side. The senselessness struck me as appropriate, both to our time and climate, and to the idea of Dada re-emerging, or rather still being with us. The tongues protruding mockingly from the two guardian figures aggravated the provocation even further. Neo-Dada this isn’t; it feels like the real thing—that war atmosphere and creepy being watched-ness, that refusal of anything comfortable or comfort just being tolerance, in all its many senses, negative or positive.

Big Brother’s attending guardians of paradise never turn to the side; they stare straight forward, as though they are, according to biblical and mythical tradition, keeping the temple of Solomon or Ezekiel. But here, they are less celestial than hellish, more intent—if we read Ernst’s own title correctly—on murdering than saving. The bronze material of the statues holds the feeling of always, not just existing in this moment, but resonating from way back—as featureless as those great and haunting Cycladic figures.

The monumentality of it all weighs upon the viewer; you feel the heaviness of each of their monstrous figures—the kind of thing that haunts your dreams. I found the holes for the eyes immensely disturbing. Seeing through what is there to keep watch is utterly devastating.

And there is worse. Whereas the knees of guardians might be assumed to be knelt upon, the knees of these sitting neophytes, twisted sideways, are clearly are not made to support the weight of their bronzeness. So they make a further mockery of guardianship.

On a less sinister level, we may be reminded of former Ernst constructions, these in painting. Take the Battle of the Fish (1917) with those delightfully humorous tent-shaped heads, or the featureless heads in the Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (1929 – 30)—but in none of my recollections of Ernst’s work is there this nightmare feeling or intensity of hovering dread.

Dada, in its refusals of the global, the powerful, the called-upon to answer, has never felt more relevant to me. Apart from its genius, something remarkable is how it gets its point, or its many subversive points, across with absolute aim. I have always found it as positive in its refusal of the bourgeois and the normal (what Rimbaud called “les assis” or the seated aspect of “rational” and “socially acceptable”). What Dada cared to see and mock and cherish I personally think we should cling to now.

We think we should encrypt our emails, our life, our being. Do we feel surveyed? Surveillance does not seem in any sense, or through any portrayal of senselessness, outdated as a concept—or a Paramyth, to use Ernstian phrasing. The ominous is surely our surrounding, and these figures, like us, are anything but hidden.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

All Issues