Max Ernst, Sign Thief

6 December 2018–28 April 2019

Exhibition Overview


In 1964 cryptographic writing appears in Max Ernst’s work for the first time, a code he created for a series of graphical works in honour of the amateur astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel (1821–1889). It recalls early Surrealist experiments with écriture automatique (automatic writing) and at the same time suggests startling comparisons with Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as those found on the Kalabsha Gate at the entrance to the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. The famous temple gate is on loan here before it moves to the Museum Island once the final wing of the Pergamon Museum is completed.

The Surrealists loved coincidences. What could be more natural than to make the presence of the gate an occasion for a Max Ernst exhibition? Taking the rarely seen cryptographic works as a starting point, the present exhibition throws light on several typical elements and themes in Max Ernst’s oeuvre. Not a few of them are borrowed: they trace a path through the history of art and images, one that can sometimes be followed right back to the art of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, the images and signs that appear in Max Ernst’s work with collage, frottage and grattage were seldom inventions of his own. Carefully covering his tracks, Max Ernst generates them from the image stockpile of an already existing world. Then, with a thief’s delight, he invests them with new, surreal messages.

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