In the Museum of Modern Art’s current Ernst retrospective, the artist’s avian alter ego, Loplop, reveals a realer reality.

Max Ernst In-text plate (page 9) from 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (65 Maximiliana ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie) 1964
Max Ernst In-text plate (page 9) from 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (65 Maximiliana ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie) 1964 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris - 65 Maximiliana is the culmination of Ernst’s profound engagement with illustrated books. The project was a collaboration between the artist and Iliazd (Il’ia Zdanevich), a Georgian-born book designer and publisher. The title refers to a planetoid discovered in 1861 by the unsung German astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Tempel, who named it in honor of Maximilian II, then king of Bavaria. Ernst’s text and biomorphic aquatints pay homage to Tempel as a kindred spirit seeking to represent domains outside ordinary human perception; they are complemented by the typography that Iliazd designed to float, constellation-like, across each page. Ernst also added a hieroglyphic script of his own invention to many of the pages.

In the annals of modern art, not enough has been said about Loplop, Max Ernst’s avian alter ego. Yet “the Bird Superior,” beaked as Ernst himself, titters at the margins of the prints and dashes through the pages of the artist’s image-novels. Now you can see Loplop and other Ernst bird-things at the Museum of Modern Art, where the retrospective Max Ernst: Beyond Painting, casts light on the weirder works — the frottages, grottages, and collages — alongside the better-known paintings.

Ernst’s surrealist vision still feels fresh. A century ago, with postwar Europe in mustard-gas-steamed ruins, he joyously ridiculed contemporary notions of progress. His formal innovations were designed to upend Enlightenment ideals of reason and supplant them with a transcendent dream logic, what founding surrealist André Breton famously called “psychic automatism in its pure state.” You’ll find Loplop preening away in many of the prints on display at MoMA, presiding over a fractured world of unconscious symbols. His appearance is one of the things that makes this exhibition something more than just another Ernst retrospective. Not quite a god, Loplop is Ernst’s familiar spirit, and where he goes a kinetic energy follows.

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