Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 16, 2018
Ralph Ubl Prehistoric Future: Max Ernst and the Return of Painting between the Wars Trans. Elizabeth Tucker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 260 pp.; 5 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $48.00 (9780226823720)

Ralph Ubl takes Max Ernst very seriously in unforeseen ways, not as a pasticheur of fashionable lines of thought—the fire bringer of Freud to Paris—and not as a great painter. This Ernst is more a dark mechanic dismantling the parts of painting (perspective, ground, picture plane, rectangle, contour), which then persist as a “repressed power” (7) in his painting, enigmatically but powerfully generating “effects of the unavailable” (6). What is at stake in the “unavailable” is Ernst’s figuring of the conditions of Surrealist revolution.

Ubl asks: What fueled Ernst’s “unconscious” production, and prompted it to take the form of artistic procedures? What allowed him to engage his chosen artistic problem—generating “effects of the unavailable”—so that the work of art could seem to be something that “evades human fabrication and that implies another authority of production” (6)? By what authority, as the familiar question goes, does it speak? Ubl’s answer, in part, is that Ernst, recognizing that painting was defunct, relegated it to an underworld or nether region in his work, from which location it might still send out signals, as if it were an unconscious authority invested with creative power. But it was not: Ernst revived painting as the “undead.” In seeing Ernst’s painting as “dead landscape” and “mortified growth,” it is hard to excise the retroactive effect of Anselm Kiefer’s charred and tarred painting as historical debris; of Yve-Alain Bois’s “manic mourners” and Hal Foster’s “cargo cultists” of an ironically resurrected American painting; and, most recently, of Walter Robinson’s painting as “zombie formalism.”1 Ubl’s Ernst is the progenitor of these death marches.

While Ubl is keen to avoid any simplistic explanations of intellectual influences, his first chapter on Ernst’s Dada work draws attention to the peculiarly German romantic idea of “originary mimesis” (110), unmediated, bodily, and spontaneous, which might tap into the fundamental patterns and energies of nature. Ubl accordingly reads Ernst’s lines as seismic fault lines that make the rupture with optical mimesis explicit. At the same time, originary mimesis is problematized: Ernst’s Dada landscape parodically preserves the idea of a natural origin of artistic procedure, while at the same time subjecting it to strange machinery, that is, to the deadening forces of mechanical repetition. While Ernst’s overpainting is not a “living skin,” but a work of “provisional repair” of “wall parts, textiles, seams, and scars” (146), inflected by his actual wartime experience of brutal transmutations of body parts and machine parts, it is also painting embalming its own mimetic vestiges.

Ubl identifies an arsenal of devices in Ernst’s work: cuts, folds, marks, duplication, repetition, boundaries, layers, cross sections, superimposed scrims, stacks and stamping. He identifies “graphic parapraxes” (24) in the pressures and breaks of line, where Ernst’s war trauma erupts as breakdown in the diagrammatic pictorial order. This is a useful point, eliding the problem of whether Ernst was deliberately or inadvertently constructing his effects. One permeating metaphor and method here is “the fold,” that is, the disruptive temporal folding of a pre-morphic prehistoric past onto a future, in the manner of the science-fiction device of a “used” or extinct future. (The original German title of Ubl’s book, Prehistoric Future, Max Ernst and the Asynchronicity of Painting, is closer to the mark.)2 There is also a spatial folding of depth onto shallowness, background onto foreground, and the picture’s space onto “our” space.

Ubl pays similarly intense attention to Ernst’s frottage, especially the Natural History series of prints (1926). Ernst rubbed a pencil over paper placed on textured surfaces until images seemed to auto-generate in the process. The frottages, which include allusions to trompe l’oeil devices while denying any such technical virtuosity and optical illusion, are afterimages from a time of belief in mimesis as the presentation of nature through the material image. If all that creative rubbing has been implicated as a psychoanalytically informed masturbation fantasy, Ubl darkly remarks that “frottaged growths never take roots” (57), a comment as much about the psychoanalytic reading as about the work itself.

In his reading, the fact that Natural History is a series of prints is crucial. As the viewer leafs through, a given image inflects subsequent ones of similar configuration, inducing optical metamorphoses. This active process of resemblances—leaf, bird, the eyes and head of Ernst’s lover Gala Eluard—seems initially to free and vivify the monochrome fossilized world, so that “the wood grain begins to flow,” and a “leather pattern changes from the scaly bark of a prehistoric lepidondendron to the pulsating skin of a reptile” (62).

In accounting for the operations of the frottages, Ubl puts pressure on the assumption that authentically automatist Surrealist work is an unmediated expression of the unconscious; rather, he sees Ernst’s work as a “theatrification” of automatic effects and of the paradoxes that arise from tension between “source” (the putative unconscious) and “surrogate” (the written or drawn manifestation). Ernst is making images about as well as with automatism. Ubl’s approach is complicated: he will avoid what he refers to as the “game” of Surrealist erudition, and the “rich intellectual historical frame”—Novalis, Freudian psychoanalysis—to which Natural History has been subjected. Yet he profitably draws upon a range of texts in his important account of the Surrealist reinvention of zoology and botany as permeable realms. With respect to the temporal folding that operates throughout, Ernst is understood to have been in search of the “epistemological problems of images of deep time” (96), from Jules Verne as much as the Freudian unconscious. Ubl effectively retrieves a plot, ending in an ecstatic visuality in which “the spell of the stony replacement world is lifted” (85), and the seeing of false resemblances is overcome.

In his third chapter, Ubl takes on the ways psychoanalysis has been deployed in the Ernst scholarship of the past forty years. He declares that Ernst’s pictures are not “psychoanalytic display cases” (147) for models of “the functioning of the unconscious or the psychic apparatus,” and they certainly do not “present an iconography that can be deciphered as a coherent text” (147).  Ubl castigates both art historians’ hitherto “naively positivist approach” to psychoanalytic material, and their correlate assumption that artists’ use of psychoanalysis must be “naïve.” For example, he considers naïve Hal Foster’s argument that Ernst’s motifs of rigidification have to do with repressing the death drive’s rigidification: instead, rigidification needs to be understood in terms of the “widely observed metaphorics of mortification” and the “mineral aesthetic” (147) taken up by modernists at the time, as refracted through World War I. This is severe. Certainly, mineral and crystalline metaphorics in German culture are well established, as in Wilhelm Worringer, whom Ubl cites: but why blockade the poet-geologist Novalis, that mother lode of German mineral romanticism, for whom mining yielded both the history and the spirit in nature? And, indeed, why not the rigidification of the ever creeping death drive?

The strength of Ubl’s approach is that, while meticulously attentive to touch and detail, he is less prone to precise correlations of Freudian theory and such features as organ fragments, machine parts, and mother metonymies. He eschews one-to-one assessments of meaning in favor of expansive overcasts of possibility, so that Freud’s theories of cloacal birth and scatophilia shadow but do not determine Ernst’s imagery of wartime machinery and production. Accordingly, in addressing Ernst’s histrionic Old Man, Woman, and Flower (1923), Ubl does draw on Freud’s Wolf Man case, but a larger spatializing point comes into play: the Flower’s “all-encompassing” rotational movement vaults “the entire space of the landscape” (162). Ubl redeems the bombast of the painting by noting that the bottom third of the painting is in effect a bottom, relating to the psychoanalytic account of the child’s speculative understanding of anal birth. But the Freudian theme is connected to a spatial point, the “problem of the platform” (167). From the Dada period on, that problem involved subjecting conventional perspectival structural supports to a tactile, shifting, speculative, primitive groping for maternal origins in the underbelly.

Ubl’s final chapter turns to Ernst’s map-like relief painting on a found fragment of plaster wall, Europe after the Rain, I (1933). It is an example that serves all spatial and temporal folds. The analysis is ingenious: for the mapping metaphor, Ubl refers it to the 1929 reconfigured Surrealist map in which the moribund European West was overtaken by the dominant East in a political fantasy of “destructive dépaysement” (187), the Rimbaud state of mind made geopolitical. Rewinding the European history of imperialism, he reads the red dotted lines as the trails of future “somnambulistic” Surrealist explorers in that state of waking dream envisioned by André Breton, on the terrain of an ancient cataclysm.

Ubl’s conclusion is a fold within his own method, his end returning to the introduction, hinged on certain of Walter Benjamin’s texts concerned with modernist painting and Surrealism. Must Europe after the Rain, I be Ernst’s pivotal, even redemptive work, moving painting away from a fixed distance of contemplative verticality to a horizontal, tactile, pressed-down, material mode that permits movement? While Europe after the Rain, I actually resembles the tactile WWI bas-relief battlefield-terrain maps of the kind used to plan tactics,3 one could quibble that Europe after the Rain, II was meant to be seen vertically.

Ubl claims Europe after the Rain, I as both a natural and artifactual object. The enigma remains of a work that could “evade human fabrication” (6).  Is the work somehow acheiropoetic? Could painting, once dismantled into its own remains by avant-garde procedures, be fully “transformed into something foreign” (6)? The answer to the questions of what “another authority of production” (6) would be, and where and when it would reside, may be the present of the art historian. Ubl’s writing itself enacts the Ernstian dialogue of folds, teasing transparency out of opacity, and yielding remarkable and provocative insights into Ernst’s techniques and concerns.

1. Walter Robinson, “Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism,” Artspace (blog), April 3, 2014,, as of April 4, 2018; Yve-Alain Bois, “The Task of Mourning,” in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, ed. Bois, David Joselit, and Elizabeth Sussman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 29–49; Hal Foster, “The Future of an Illusion, or the Contemporary Artist as Cargo Cultist,” in Endgame, 96.

2. Ralph Ubl, Prähistorische Zukunft: Max Ernst und die Ungleichzeitigkeit des Bildes (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2004).

3. For example, in the Imperial War Museum, as of April 12, 2018,

Elizabeth Legge
Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, University of Toronto

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