Ernst’s Bitterly Ironic Representation of Marital Pride


Max Ernst “Monument to the Birds” (1927)

A man, involved into marriage always feels that he is a head of the household, even when in everyday life sense it’s not the case. How proudly he is looking at the world around. His wings look like an armor. His eyes are pathetically enlarged by his suspicious attention to the space. He, as if, is not just looking, but visually interrogating the space – is it empty of potential rivals who are for sure on their way to intervene in his kingdom to kidnap his wife, steal his children and destroy his nest/property? But what is a married man/bird without a wife, children and property? – “Just a damned fool”, like the hero of O’ Neill’s play said.

Married woman personifies comfort, not only for her husband and children, but for herself or rather to herself – she is a comfortable comfort. Looking at the painting we feel that she is enjoying her soft thick wrap, and just to see her giving herself to it makes the viewers too feel relaxed, pleasant and comfortable. That’s how she is supposed to be perceived by her bird/king husband and her children and her sofa, refrigerator, dresses, etc. By the way, between the husband and wife we see something like her second wing that, as if, doesn’t completely belong to her – this additional part as if belongs to them both – to the wife and husband. It is a wing of love. Let’s call this extra part the signifier of the very family embrace of dad and mom, symbolizing for the kids – Her herself and Him himself in a comfortable her-him-ness.

On the side of the mother – under her legs, if to use human association we see her two chicks. The problem here is that the elder chick-brother is already tortures the younger and smaller one with his enlarged – predatory double beak (that even his father doesn’t have). Under the chicks we can see a hatchling – the third inhabitant of the monumental life of marriage-nest. But it seems that this youngest addition to the family also has a double, still soft variant of a beak. Ernst is obviously emphasizing with his bird-human family the progress in the ability to fight and to kill from elder to the younger generations.

Today, in contradiction to American traditional – democratic, although sometimes not too efficient humanistic education (liberal arts), many parents believe that children as early as possible have to be taught how to fight for domination and how to become more successful in self-assertion than others “or children never will be on the top and instead will rot on the bottom for the rest of their lives”. So, the family life of “human birds” (Ernst’s metaphoric birds) is to nurture not the human part of the birds and not the bird part of the humans but creatures who know how to fight for success, for existence and for personal and financial power.

Marriage is not as innocent and matter-of-fact structure as it seems just because it exists and became habitual. It includes unconscious possessiveness and need to feel that you are in control of your family – the precious feeling of my-ownership of my family. That’s why marriage is a form of power and money (which are able to incarnate – to take the form of various things and substances, make them to behave like themselves). The household is social status and money in the form of family life. It’s from this intimate connection inside the authoritarianism of family structure we see child and spousal abuse and violence and… high rate of divorce, when only money saves the spouses from hate and violence. Of course, there is a way to avoid violence even without divorce. It’s to kill your own soul, to transform yourself into a marionette through mutual psychological manipulation between spouses. It’s difficult to collect statistical data about how widespread this deadly peaceful resolution of marriage is.

Note: Ernst’s “Monument to the Birds” and Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt”

Let’s just imagine that a male – bird/husband in a situation of the appearance of an alternative male nearby – will not behave as a typical husband (feel bouts of hate towards a rival or will start to demonstratively sulk). Paul (Michel Piccoli), the Camille‘s (Brigitte Bardot) husband in Godard’s “Contempt” is a very intelligent man – he doesn’t have a psychological need to play traditional role. But for this to happen in real life creatures including people have to be in a Zoo. In real life we will see violent intentions or proud violence in all directions. That’s what the Ernst’s “Monument to the Birds” is about. Marriage is a special bond with absolutist elements in it – it is a precious monument and simultaneously a fort. It is on this – blindly religious, conservative, intolerant background the majority of people have based their personal love. Of course, some people can marry in a psychologically secular context because of their genuine democratic sensibility, but they’re far from being the majority today. Often people with obviously democratic tastes carry deep conservative pockets in their unconscious.