In 1964 cryptographic writing appears in Max Ernst’s work for the first time, a code he created for a series of prints dedicated to the amateur astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel (1821–1889). It recalls early Surrealist experiments with écriture automatique (automatic writing) and at the same time suggests startling comparisons with Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as those found on the Kalabsha Gate at the entrance to the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. The famous temple gate, a remnant of the building’s former use by the Egyptian Collection, will move to the Museum Island upon completion of the final wing of the Pergamonmuseum.
The Surrealists loved chance. Is it not thus perfectly fitting to seize upon the chance presence of the Egyptian gate to hold a Max Ernst exhibition around it? Taking the rarely seen cryptographic works as a starting point, the exhibition throws light on several typical elements and themes in Max Ernst’s oeuvre. Not a few of them are borrowed: they trace a path through the history of art and visual culture, partly as far back as Ancient Egypt. Indeed, the images and marks that appear in Max Ernst’s work in collage, frottage and grattage were seldom of his own invention. Carefully covering his tracks and acting with a thief’s delight, Ernst appropriated them from a visual repertoire that already existed, only to invest them with new, clandestine and surreal messages.