'We young people came back from the war dazed and our disgust simply had to find an outlet. This quite naturally took the form of attacks on the foundations of the civilization that had brought this war about - attacks on language, syntax, logic, literature, painting and so forth' (Max Ernst quoted in Max Ernst, exh. cat., London, 1991, p. 82).
2 Holoder Sulfate Silicate Picastrate u. Zwillinge nach meiner wahl mit stbchen (Two Holohedra Sulfates, Silicates, Picastrates and twins after my choice with chopsticks (little sticks)) is the intriguing, longwinded, and ultimately nonsensical title that Ernst gave to this magnificent early collage, executed in 1920. A magical transformation of a dry woodcut aid to technical drawing into a pseudo-scientific landscape of alchemical possibility, this overpainted collage one of Ernst's first collages and a sublime example of his Dadaist work in Cologne in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.
One of the key forces of Dadaist art in Germany, collage is a medium that resided at the heart of Ernst's aesthetic throughout his career. Its power to create magical encounters and seemingly new dimensions of reality through the simple collating together of seemingly disparate and unconnected forms and images on the picture plane was one that Ernst first recognized in 1919 and which ultimately gave rise to frottage, grattage and much of his working practice for the rest of his life. 2 Holoder... is one of a series of early collages in which Ernst first explored the magic of this medium, translating technical diagrams, and images of scientific apparatuses and other modern appliances as found in advertisements, prospectuses and educational aids into fantasy landscapes and poetic portraits of a strange, sometimes sinister and often erotically infused world of his own imagination.
Initially inspired by the worlds created by Paul Klee and in particular Giorgio de Chirico, whose metaphysical art had exploded into Ernst's consciousness like a revelation when he first saw it reproduced in an issue of Valori Plastici in 1919, Ernst saw in such work the potential for a new poetic realism and in collage the means to create it. 'I had the feeling' he wrote, 'of rediscovering something which I had long been familiar with, as when an event already seen opens up an entire region of our personal world of dreams, a world that due to a kind of censorship we had not seen or allowed ourselves to see' (Max Ernst, 'Notes for a Biography' quoted in Werner Spies, Max Ernst: Collages, London, 1988, p. 48)
As an homage to de Chirico, Ernst created his first portfolio of meta-mechanical in which engineer's blueprints seemed to have developed organic lives of their own. It was following the creation of this work that, as he recalled in 1936, 'on a rainy day in 1919, finding myself in a village on the Rhine, a teaching aid catalogue caught my attention. I saw advertisements for all kinds of models - mathematical, geometrical, anthropological, zoological, botanical, anatomical, mineralogical, and paleontological - all elements of such a differing nature that the absurdity of their being gathered together confused my eyes and my mind, calling forth hallucinations which in turn gave the objects represented new and rapidly changing meaning. My 'faculty of sight' was suddenly intensified to such a degree that I saw these newly emerged objects appearing against a new background. All that was needed to capture this effect was a little colour or a few lines, a horizon here, a desert there, a sky, a wooden floor and so on. And so my hallucination was fixed' (Max Ernst, 'What is the mechanism of collage?', 1936 in Hershell. B Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 427).
Ernst may well have been thinking of 2 Holoder when he wrote these lines. From what appears to be a woodcut illustration for a teaching aid for technical drawing Ernst has created a desert landscape and a wooden platform on which rests a series of mysterious apparatuses that appear, as in Duchamp and Picabia's work, to be strange personages. Formally these meta-mechanical figures echo a sequence of physics apparatuses illustrated in the Bibliotheca Paedogicia that Ernst had used as the source image for another overpainted collage work at this time, Demonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la temperature. Seeming to define an apparent, but unintelligible purpose, they speak, like 17th Century alchemical illustrations, which they also to some extent resemble, of a hidden language. This sense of a hidden, unseen or long-forgotten language of mystery is augmented by the strange title of the work appended, in the manner of Paul Klee's drawings and watercolours, along the bottom of the collage. Seeming to refer to the manufacture of a series of crystals, 'sulfate', 'silicate', and the fictitious 'Picastrate' - a comic reference to Picasso that also appears in Ernst's contemporaneous poem Worringer, Profetor Dadaisticus - the title of this work seems, like its imagery, to subvert rational language in favour of the richer and more poetic terrain of the irrational.