Week 18 - 2016

Smoke signals

© Arnold Newman. Max Ernst, New York City, 1942. Preus museum's collection.

Smoke signals

What is the first thing you notice in this picture? Is it possibly the smoke twisting in front of the artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) placed farthest down in the image? Or is it the graceful chair he sits on, the doll on the table, or the pictures in the background? The person? The image offers many opportuniities for interpretation. Why are these things present in a portrait?


Arnold Newman (1918-2006) is supposed to have said that he didn't take photographs, but that he built them. Newman is known for portraits in which he uses the surroundings to say something about the person in front of the camera. What does this picture tell us?


Max Ernst was an innovative artist and a pioneer of surrealism and dadaism. In several of his paintings a bird appears that he called LopLop. The bird was his alter ego, and he claimed it was an extension of himself.  The smoke in this picture resembles a bird, and in a way is connected with Max Ernst via the cigarette and the hand holding it. The photograph made it possible to manifest this extension.    


On the table is a so-called Kachina doll, a figure the Hopi Indians believed to be symbolic of the deities who were messengers between humans and the spirit world. The doll possibly represents Ernst's use of surrealistic dreamlike figures and symbolism in his own pictures, or the contact with the unconscious he considered important for his own art. Or is it a play on the surrealistic artist himself as a communicator of dreamlike visions?


 At the Preus Museum you can see this image and several of Arnold Newman's portraits on the Wall of Fame through this summer.