Max Ernst’s Imaginary Language: An Examination of the Invented Hieroglyphs Appearing in Three Books

Auteur / Author: 
David SUME (Université de Montréal, Canada)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 10:15


The concept of an indecipherable false language was an idea of Ernst’s which he apparently first employed for the introduction to the 1962 exhibition catalogue for the artist Unica Zürn (Zürn, 1962). He then reprised an introduction of the hieroglyphs for the catalogue of a 1963 exhibition of his own work (Ernst, 1963). A third appearance of the invented language was in the 1964 book Maximiliana. He stated that Iliazd specifically requested this technique: “J’ai fait une fois des écritures secrètes et Iliazd s’est jeté sur moi en me disant : ‘Voilà, tu vas me faire un texte comme ça’.’” (Ernst, 1970)

Ernst referred to these characters as “écriture secrète.” Ludger Derenthal quoted Ernst from the dedicatory text accompanying the copy of Maximiliana he gave to the collection of his work in Brühl, his birthplace, as implying some mysterious hidden meaning: “L’écriture secrète n’est pas un secret pour celui qui a des yeux pour voir et sait interpreter les signes.” (Derenthal, 1992: 257)

Derenthal also attributed the production of these characters to an equivalent to Surrealist automatic writing (ibid.: 259). Given the production technique, Ernst’s comments seem intended to give some impression of hidden meaning to characters inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs, but for which a Rosetta Stone would never be found. I would like to examine these three instances of Ernst’s production of an imaginary language.