Max Ernst

An astonishment a day- 
drives your depression away...

The punishment of the Jesus Child.

On the attached painting by Max Ernst (1891 - 1976), we see the Holy Virgin Mary as she beats the Jesus Child so mercilessly that his halo has fallen and is lying on the floor. Through the window, the scene is witnessed by three confused men - the artist himself, and his friends, well known figures of the cultural scene at the first half of the previous century - Andre Bretton and Paul Eluard. (The full title of the painting is as follows: "The Holy Virgin punishes the Christ child in the presence of three witnesses: A. B., P. E., and artist").

Although to ask the following would indicate intellectual primitivism - one always wants to question what the artist meant by his art. 

And now I am really confused. In fact there is only one thought that comes to mind - he wanted to provoke us, along the lines of - "I provoke, therefor I am". More contemporary clowning around such as the hanging of genitalia on the cross, or peeing on religious symbols are predominantly done in the realm of fooling around and only make us shrug our shoulders with disregard - this painting however seems to provoke a deeper response. It somehow challenges the everlasting attributes of the Holy Mother - a symbol of motherly love, goodness, sacrifice and devotion. And from a more theological point of view - disregarding Hinduism, Greek-Roman mythology, the beliefs of the indigenous Indians, Aborigines etc - the question is can we spank God, even if we are the Holy Mother and a Virgin.  


Our unease increases as we look closer at the expression of the face of the Holy Mother - the severity, and the raised hand (the painting was completed in 1926, a year before Hitler was triumphantly released from jail). The witnesses, the intellectual elite are obviously confused. But we do not know what with. Perhaps heir own presence?

To some extent, the natural reaction for provocation is anger. This of course is the whole point of it. This also applies to the painting and the artist. When the painting first appeared in 1926 at an Exhibition of Independent Artists in Cologne, it created an uproar of anger and official condemnation from Catholic artists. When two years later it was exhibited again, the reaction was even more severe. The clergy requested to have the exhibition closed down, and won. But it did not finish at this, the scandal was so huge that the Archbishop of Cologne personally excommunicated the artist in front of the assembled believers at a cathedral. Among these was the artist's father….

Max Ernst is regarded as the father of surrealism. 




(C) (selected from publications of 
 R. Antoszewski

Titirangi, Auckland, 
New Zeland

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February  2003