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Prehistoric Future

Max Ernst and the Return of Painting between the Wars

Translated by Elizabeth Tucker
One of the most admired artists of the twentieth century, Max Ernst was a proponent of Dada and founder of surrealism, known for his strange, evocative paintings and drawings. In Prehistoric Future, Ralph Ubl approaches Ernst like no one else has, using theories of the unconscious—surrealist automatism, Freudian psychoanalysis, the concept of history as trauma—to examine how Ernst’s construction of collage departs from other modern artists.
Ubl shows that while Picasso, Braque, and Man Ray used scissors and glue to create collages, Ernst employed techniques he himself had forged—rubbing and scraping to bring images forth onto a sheet of paper or canvas to simulate how a screen image or memory comes into the mind’s view. In addition, Ernst scoured the past for obsolete scientific illustrations and odd advertisements to illustrate the rapidity with which time passes and to simulate the apprehension generated when rapid flows of knowledge turn living culture into artifact. Ultimately, Ubl reveals, Ernst was interested in the construction and phenomenology of both collective and individual modern history and memory. Shedding new light on Ernst’s working methods and the reasons that his pieces continue to imprint themselves in viewers’ memories, Prehistoric Future is an innovative work of critical writing on a key figure of surrealism.

260 pages | 4 color plates, 60 halftones | 7 x 9 | © 2013

Art: Art Criticism, European Art


 “Ubl’s book presents a fresh approach and a very thoughtful analysis of the early and most innovative work of this complex artist. Ubl’s rigorous study of Ernst’s unorthodox, ‘anti-metaphysical’ image-production is particularly welcome as his work still deserves better understanding and broader exposure in America.”

Josef Helfenstein, Director, Menil Collection

"Prehistoric Future is an ambitious and mature scholarly achievement. No one has ever before plumbed this issue of the non-synchronous character of Ernst’s images with such depth, and certainly not with the rigor or probing visual and analytical acuity that Ralph Ubl brings to the task. Rich, illuminating, and brilliant, this book will not only contribute substantially to the discourse on Max Ernst and surrealism, but it is an inspiring and timely demonstration of the insights that can be gained by a probing, tireless, and theoretically informed eye.”

Charles W. Haxthausen, Williams College

 “Ralph Ubl’s brilliant book on Max Ernst in relation to Dada, surrealism, and—above all—what he calls the return of painting is a revelation. Rigorously historical, it offers a highly original and, to my mind, wholly persuasive series of readings both of individual works and of the larger issues at stake during the post–World War I decades. All scholars dealing with this fascinating material from here on out will have to take their bearings from Ubl’s ambitious study.”

Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

“Learned and articulate (signifying the quality of the translation from German), this volume takes a chrono-critical approach…. It contributes significantly to a reassessment of the sequential modernization of art and to the study of the artist and Dada…. [I]t will enlighten practitioners and a readership interested in 20th-century art and cultural history. Recommended.”


“[B]rilliant. . . . Ubl’s nuanced and persuasive readings address a number of Ernst’s most important works. . . . An ambitious and substantially new account of the continued claims of [painting] in a period often presented as the age and wake of its undoing, this study has far-reaching implications not only for the highly active field of surrealism studies but also for the broader history and theory of modernism and the avant-garde.”

Molly Warnock | Critical Inquiry

Table of Contents


1          From Dada to Surrealism:
            The Ghost Story of Mimesis

2          Natural History in Service to the Surrealist Revolution

3          Max Ernst and Freud

4          Prehistory and Modern History:
            The Return of the First World War
            Excursus: The Earth: The Formal History of a Theme

5          Prehistory and Modern History:
            Europe after the Rain, 1933
            Afterword: Walter Benjamin and Max Ernst


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