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April 1998

Mythology, Surrealism and Melancholy: The Haus der Kunst's latest exhibition joins genres and blurs boundaries

Delving into the artwork of Arnold Böcklin, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst, all featured at the Exhibit, A Journey into the Unknown.

The latest exhibition at the Haus der Kunst is a thematically expansive look at the work of artists Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) and Max Ernst (1891-1976). The viewer needs a wide lens to fit the entire breadth of the exhibition into one picture: the three painters careers cover some 150 years, but the span of styles from Böcklin's mannered landscapes to de Chirico's brooding introspection and Ernst's surreal figures seem to defy consolidation. To present the three artists' works as a coherent whole, A Journey into the Unknown focuses on the influence they had on one another and highlights the common themes they address. "Each picture is independent but has something to say about the pictures to its left and right," says Haus der Kunst director Christoph Vitali. The over 200 works, including paintings, sketches its own heading. "Love and death," "expectation and fulfillment," "violence and play" - to name three common themes - are purposely vague, broad strokes covering the wide spectrum of Böcklin's, de Chirico's and Ernst's oevres. Mythology is a leitmotif for all three painters. In Böcklin's Prometheus, muted edges and somber earth tones create a dark and stormy hill draped with the god's chained, yet powerful figure. This contrasts with the lighter hues in de Chirico's Odysseus' Return, depicting the hero as he rows his boat across a sea, which is actually a throw rug in the center of a conventional sitting room. Odysseus' solitude is matched by the resolute virtue in Ernst's The Temptation of St. Anthony which shows the saint being besieged, bitten and poked by devious creatures. Their diabolical grins unmistakably reveal the joy in their devilry but, in other works by Ernst, he depicts similar figures as well-meaning and simple, in surreal mockery of the absurd. De Chirico and Ernst explore the unknown sides of the human psyche. De Chirico's straight lines and geometrical shapes reduce the figures to a faceless design, addressing the loss of individuality through the industrial age, as in his painting Hector and Andromeda. In The Riddle of an Autumn Afternoon, de Chirico reveals his reflective nature and the thinker's disquiet and curiosity. Ernst was influenced by the surrealist cues in de Chirico's painting and uses similar shapes and lines in his early paintings, while his postwar pictures stretch the imagination with their bulbous and dreamlike figures and hidden human forms. A Journey into the Unknown points to Munich as the focal point in the relationship among the three artists who never met personally. Swiss-born Böcklin lived and worked in Munich from 1858 to 1860 and again from 1871 to 1874. De Chirico moved to Munich from Greece in 1906 and began his art studies at Munich's Kunstakademie before moving to Italy. De Chirico first saw Böcklin's work in local galleries and immediately picked up on Böcklin's fascination with mythology. Ernst, the only German in the trio, came to Munich frequently during his studies and his early career to exhibit his work and meet with artists' groups. It was in Munich in 1919 that Ernst discovered reproductions of de Chirico's work in Italian magazines. De Chirico's searching and intuitive illustrations spurred Enrst on to the surrealism he would later embrace in Paris. These early influences sparked in Munich are clear through paintings such as de Chirico's 1909 version of Böcklin's Prometheus and Ernst's 1924 copy of de Chirico's Riddle of an Autumn Day. De Chirico's and Ernst's associations with Munich took a more sinister turn, however, when several of their works were included in the Nazis' 1937 exhibition of "Degenerate Art," a mere stone's throw from the Haus der Kunst. A Journey into the Unknown marks a happier reunion of the artists in their original "meeting point."

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