The Netherlands celebrates this year’s edition of TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) with a 20-century display of pretty nearly every kind of art form you can think of including textiles, tapestries and furniture. In such a mix is a kind of wakeup call about the horrors of war, “La Horde” painted by Surrealist Max Ernst.
In “La Horde,” Ernst conjured a maniacal-looking army on the march – a kind of a rebuke of the Europe to come. The time was 1937 and to make his point, he scraped the bottom of the painting to give the impression of a crumbling and decomposing world. Above the ground he painted what look like apparitions – part tree, part human battling to survive, the sort of thing found in in scary fairy tales. In this way, “La Horde” has the power to stare down the treasures in the show and render them trifles.
Ernst talked about the painting this way: “We young people came back from the war in a state of stupefaction at the absurdity, the total swinishness and imbecility of what had gone on for four years. We had to get back somehow at the ‘civilization’ which was responsible for the war.”
Many anti-war-themed works came from Ernst in reaction to WWI that still disturb and still are worth talking about. Consider his “The Fireside Angel,” which he painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain, the same year he painted “La Horde.” What you see is a monster terrifying the world – not unlike the monsters we know today.
Ernst, who called his monster a “clumsy oaf that destroys everything that gets in its way,” knew without knowing that his painting would transcend time. As he said, “That was my impression in those days of the things that might happen in the world, And I was right.”
Another of his paintings that anticipated events was “The Elephant Celebes,” a disturbing vision of a monstrous vacuum cleaner resembling an elephant. As irrational as that sounds, the image makes the point that the world is a dislocated place. And perhaps topping this body of work is Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain,” which pictures the after-effects of a world hit by a nuclear bomb – mutations from radioactive fallout.
Kudos to TEFAF, known for its strict vetting of exhibit examples, for placing “La Horde” in a show of so many decorative arts and design items. This, even despite Ernst’s famed line: “Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.”