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Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale

Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924, oil with painted wood elements and cut-and-pasted printed paper on wood with wood frame, 69.8 x 57.1 x 11.4 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) With Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Museum of Modern Art. And we're looking at a painting by Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, and this isn't a painting in the traditional sense. There's stuff in it. - [Beth] A lot of stuff, actually, that emerges toward us from the painting. There's an open gate, there's a rudimentary house with some other objects stuck on top of it. And there's something that looks like a knob. - [Steven] And despite these toy-like objects that are nailed into the surface of the painting, there are references to the tradition of painting. There's a deep recessionary space that's beautifully expressed by linear perspective and by atmospheric perspective, but tradition pretty much stops there. - [Beth] Including objects from everyday life had been done by Picasso and Braque about a decade earlier, but in those paintings we see forms that still cohere. What we have here is something that was very important to Dadaist artists, and that is the bringing together of really disparate objects. We see the title on this painted frame and then we see a surface painted with a thick impasto in very flat green and two figures painted in grisailles, that is painted in grayish tones. - [Steven] These are both female figures. The one that's upright seems to be running holding an enormous knife. Her hair is flying up behind her, and so there's a sense of velocity, a sense of drama which suggests that she's either fleeing or chasing. And it's completely unclear as to which. - [Beth] And she moves toward the outside of the painting. And so if she is running from something we don't see anything behind her. And we certainly don't see anything that she could be running toward. So we're missing a big piece of that narrative. And then this figure who is either asleep or wounded or dead in this green field. There is a feeling of danger. Perhaps the woman on the left with the knife is reacting in some way to that figure on the ground. - [Steven] But they're far enough away that they're also disassociated. And that's the confusing part. The woman with the knife is running by her. She's not running at, or from the figure on the ground. - [Beth] I think that you raise an important point that they're not near one another, but we really can't judge distance here at all. That wall moves too quickly back into that space. Those forms in the background, what looked like a wall, a triumphal arch, and behind that a domed structure perhaps with a minaret or a wall around it, how far away are those? How far away other figures from one another? The depth of that green field is impossible to determine. And then these objects are really close to us. - [Steven] I always think of this as metaphorical, that that ancient Roman arch is the distance of history. And the domed architecture reminds me at least of Renaissance paintings that show Jerusalem at a distance. And so the distance is not only physical, but perhaps historical or metaphorical. - [Beth] And we shouldn't forget about what is perhaps the most menacing figure in the painting, the figure who alights on the roof as though he's been flying with just his right toes carrying a child, and like the female figure carrying the knife, reaches out his arm and moves toward outside the frame of the painting. - [Steven] In fact, he almost seems to be trying to reach or touch the knob that is physically attached to the frame. And like the figures below the child and the man are painted in grisailles, which some art historians have noted reminds them of Ernst's earlier collages, where he would cut out black and white photographs or drawings and paste them together. There is a fifth figure also painted in grisailles. And that's a bird, presumably the nightingale. - [Beth] The title tells us that this is about the menacing of the nightingale, this bird, which has a beautiful song and which is supposed to seduce us, does the very opposite here. We have this immediate sense of things that don't belong together, suggesting a dream. - [Steven] I would say that in this image things don't come together in an aggressive way that is a reminder of the art that was made by groups of artists in Paris where this was made, in Cologne, where Ernst had come from, but also in New York, in Zurich, Berlin. And in all of these places, artists were responding to the devastation of the First World War, of its uselessness, of its violence. - [Beth] The absurdity of the war, the use of technology in that war. This is also the time of Freud, who Ernst was very interested in, the idea of the unconscious, of things that can't be controlled. And there are forms here that suggest the erotic or sexual meaning that would have been similar to the kinds of readings of Freud. So what are the figures here afraid of precisely? - [Steven] Ernest went into the war in 1914 and didn't come out until the war's end. He served both on the Western Front and on the Eastern Front. And he was wounded when artillery that he was manning recoiled. He had firsthand knowledge of this devastation. - [Beth] And when he came back from the war to Cologne, he came back to a city that was occupied by British forces and political and economic chaos in Germany. - [Steven] And yet, despite this unprecedented violence, society was trying to normalize what had happened and the Dadaists refused that. And so Ernst does seem to be drawing on his interest in Freud and especially the interest in the irrational of the unconscious, of our state below our socialized beings. What made the work possible? (jazzy piano music)