Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Molly Warnock reviews Ralph Ubl’s Prehistoric Future

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. Hardcover $45.00.

Reviewed by Molly Warnock

4 June 2014

A prodigious literature testifies both to Max Ernst’s importance within the interwar European avant-garde and to an enduring rift in his critical reception. Long recognized as a founding figure of Cologne dada and a leading light in Paris surrealism, he has been cast both as a canny manipulator of pictorial techniques (collage, grattage, frottage, and so on) and—what can appear the opposite—a uniquely receptive conduit for psychic processes, less the master than the medium of the poetic visions at play in his oeuvre. Ralph Ubl’s brilliant monograph, originally published in German in 2004 and ably translated by Elizabeth Tucker, does not simply cast another vote in favor of one or the other view; nor does it downplay the extent to which Ernst himself vacillated between these two poles. Rather, it takes the tension between them as its subject, setting it within what the author in a new introduction calls “the larger theoretical context of the modern aesthetic of originality” (p. 4). Like other avant-garde artists before and after him, Ubl claims, Ernst at once foregrounds the technical and material bases of his art and refers the authority for his results to another productive source, higher or deeper than the finite self and by no means reducible to its conscious procedures. Ubl’s nuanced and persuasive readings address a number of Ernst’s most important works—among them, the collages and overpaintings of the early 1920s; the surrealist frottages of the Natural History portfolio of 1926; and the landmark painting Europe after the Rain of 1933 —within a continually evolving set of biographical, historical, and theoretical contexts and effectively recast the very notion of a psychoanalytic picture. Of particular importance throughout is the emphasis on painting, which Ubl argues was not so much superseded as dismantled and repressed by the historical avant-garde—whose productions it returned to haunt in the crucial decades after World War I.  An ambitious and substantially new account of the continued claims of that medium in a period often presented as the age and wake of its undoing, this study has far-reaching implications not only for the highly active field of surrealism studies but also for the broader history and theory of modernism and the avant-garde.