Thursday, September 26, 2013

Emulating Ernst: An Art History Lesson

Ernst's decalomania
Not only is it an honor to have your work analyzed by an art historian, the experience can be an education in itself.

One of my colleagues, an art history professor, kindly attended the closing reception last night of the three-person show I've just participated in at Framingham State University, titled "Actions \ Reactions." During her visit, she noted the textured surface of the script-like lines in my paintings and told me they reminded her of a process utilized by the Surrealists, Max Ernst in particular, titled "Decalomania."

I'm so grateful to her for this observation because, while I was generally familiar with the series in which Ernst used this technique, I didn't know much about it and certainly had never made the connection between that method of working and what I do in the studio.

Decalomania basically means making a print from a coating of still-wet paint. When the two surfaces are pulled apart, their squishy separation causes a series of intricate ripples that look as though they are the result of painstakingly applied brushwork. And of course they are anything but painstaking! Those little rivulets aren't controlled by the artist at all; like so many interesting surfaces in art, they "just happen."

When I make my line paintings, I "draw" the lines by extruding diluted acrylic paint through ketchup bottles. The lines that flow out of the squeeze bottles are rounded and precise, and often I want them to look flat and wavery. So I lay a sheet of paper on the wet surface, flatten it with a brayer, and peel it off, leaving tiny facets inside each line. That's my personalized version of decalomania!
Detail of "Shorthand" by Catherine Carter, acrylic on canvas, 2013, approximately 40" square

I found THIS extensive blog post about the process, and its use by Ernst. This writer suggests that decalomania might have saved Ernst's life! Apparently when he was fleeing Vichy France in 1940, he was stopped just as he was about to board a train bound for Spain. A suspicious official rifled through the belongings he was carrying, which included rolled canvases that happened to include the decalomania technique. The man saw the elaborate "ribbed" sections of Ernst's works and thought he must have painted those areas with a tiny brush. He pronounced, "You, sir, have great talent" and escorted Ernst to the train. (If he hadn't been so transfixed by the technique, he might have been more aware of the works' "untraditional" content and taken the artist into custody!)

HERE is another interesting link about Ernst's masterpiece, "Europe After the Rain II," an oil painting chock full of decalomania.

"Europe After the Rain II" by Max Ernst, oil on canvas, 1940-42, approximately 2 feet high by 5 feet wide.
I feel as if I am in the highest company in using this technique!


Erika said...

Glad to help! And, I, too always learn so much from artists! I love being able to share my knowledge with interested parties. Isn't teaching fun?

Catherine Carter said...

It's great to be able to connect contemporary art with art history - especially when it's one's own art!

Martha Marshall said...

What a wonderful connection! I had heard the term years ago, but it didn't really register at the time. Now, through the help of your colleague and your example I'll never forget it. In fact the technique sometimes shows up as part of my textures. The show looks beautiful!

Catherine Carter said...

Thank you, Martha! It's easy to forget that the "masters" like Ernst were all experimenting, just like you and me! I tend to think that they just sat down and made perfect painting every time, and of course that's not exactly the way it works. I appreciate your reading and commenting!