Habakuk by Max Ernst

Conversation Piece

Yale’s architecture is aflutter with birds. Some are phoenixes, some are eagles, though for the most part owls rule the roost. Yet for the last two years, a mysterious newcomer has been standing watch over Bulldog territory, and it’s certainly no owl.

What it represents, exactly, is difficult to say, and so is its name. It’s a 1970 bronze casting of Max Ernst’s Habakuk (1934), one of four in the world, located on Cross Campus between Berkley Residential College and William L. Harkness Hall. Nearly 15 feet tall and made of 2.2 metric tons of blackened metal, its body looks like a wobbly stack of flowerpots, with eyes resembling dried peas and a head like a speed cyclist’s helmet put on in reverse. According to the National Gallery of Australia, which owns one of the other castings, the sculpture is an avian figure, though on first glance it could easily be mistaken for something else. When asked if he knew anything about the statue, a student responded: “You mean the one that looks like a can-opener?”

Habakuk was donated to Yale by Jeffrey H. Loria, a prominent art dealer and the owner of the Miami Marlins, and installed in 2013 to commemorate Peter Salovey’s inauguration as the university’s latest president. The plaque at its base mentions the artist, the title and a minimal dedication. That’s it.

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But a little digging can go a long way. Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, poet and pioneer in both the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Ernst’s fascination with birds began as a boy when the death of his pet cockatoo the day before the birth of his sister fused birds with his ideas of death and transformation. He even went so far as to invent an avian alter-ego named Loplop, who appears in several of the artist’s works, including one called Loplop, Superior of the Birds. While birds are readily recognizable—beaks and claws and wings—most of his work was not fully representational, something all too evident in the odd hatchling that now stands on Yale’s campus.

While the sight of it might seem strange and haphazard, the site chosen for Habakuk is highly deliberate. According to former dean of Yale College Mary Miller, roughly forty places on campus were considered for the sculpture. Its final roosting place juxtaposes the interwar modernism the sculpture embodies and the neo-Gothic architecture around it—all of which was built around the time Ernst cast his statue: Berkeley College in 1934, Harkness Hall in 1927 and Calhoun College in 1933. The placement pokes some fun at Yale’s own concern with inventing its own grandeur in the western academic tradition, at a time when the western tradition was being severely scrutinized, both by Ernst and other thought-provokers of the era.

Ernst didn’t only observe and critique. He got his feet wet in the world, most notably while serving as a soldier in WWI. But he was traumatized by what he experienced. Certain modernist artists, Ernst among them, were concerned about the products of European Enlightenment, the Christian religion and a civilization that at once claimed such moral and rational high-ground while producing something as base and sickening as trench warfare.

Ernst expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of his civilization by mocking social and artistic conventions and often making sport of religious icons. The statue Habakuk takes aim at the minor Jewish prophet, Habakkuk (spelled with just one “k” in German). In chapter 2, verse 18, of the book of the Old Testament that carries his name, the prophet condemns those who make sculptures: “Of what use is the carved image, that its maker should carve it? Or the molten image, the lying oracle, that its very maker should trust in it, and make mute idols?” In ironic homage to the critic, Ernst may be depicting him as a molten bronze idol.

Yet Habakuk may not just be a jab in a sparring match between a long-gone prophet and a witty sculptor. A broader look at the contents of Habakkuk’s prophecy reveals a second, much more ominous meaning to the dark figure. In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet has a vision of the end of the world: the rise of a fierce and ruthless army, the destruction of animals, land and city. Ernst lived in Germany during the 1930s at a time when the Nazi party was on the rise. Hitler seized control of the country in 1933 and Ernst sculpted Habakuk just a year later. An army was indeed gathering and the “end of the world” was not far off. Perhaps Ernst felt it.

If Habakuk is in fact an echo of Habakkuk’s sinister prophecy, the message seems faint on a lush green college campus, surrounded by untroubled passersby and self-serious neo-Gothic walls. Onlookers can wander by and wonder with relative tranquility where it came from and what on earth it might be. A penguin? A stack of flowerpots? Or a “can-opener”?

Either way, Habakuk really is a bit of a can-opener, isn’t it?

honoring the inauguration of Yale president Peter Salovey
Location: Cross Campus, outside William L. Harkness Hall (map)
Sculpted: 1934 | Cast: 1970 | Installed: 2013

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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