One of the great privileges of being a curator at MoMA is firsthand access to the works that make up our outstanding collection. Yet, even in the case of the Drawings collection, with its share of easily handled, two-dimensional works, this access often begins with an exploration of our digital database. The basic information on a work—artist, title, date, etc.—is readily available here, and makes it an invaluable resource for early research on any project. But working with the database has an unavoidable pitfall that makes attention to detail a must: the thumbnail images of all the works are roughly the same size, regardless of the actual scale of artwork. On my screen, Karl Haendel’s nine-foot-high Thumbprint #3 (2003) is visually equal to Piero Manzoni’s actual Thumbprint (1960), which is considerably smaller, on a sheet measuring about 8 x 6 1/2 inches. Working one step removed from the physical object this way can sometimes lead to surprises. Reading, and intellectually understanding, that a drawing measures 1/2 x 1 3/8 inches is an oddly different experience than encountering the tiny slip of paint on paper, barely the size of a stick of gum, that is Max Ernst’s Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden of Eden (1946–47).
Such a grand biblical subject is seemingly at odds with such a tiny work of art, but Ernst’s microscopic drawing perfectly captures a glowing, divine presence presiding over a sea of human turmoil. The work belongs to a series of tiny images, often of vast landscapes, that Ernst began creating while living in Sedona, Arizona, in 1946.
Amazingly, these “Microbes,” as the artist referred to them, perfectly capture the eerie stillness of the arid Southwestern landscape that was home to Ernst and his wife at that time, artist Dorothea Tanning. On a practical level, working at this scale allowed Ernst to more easily ship his work for exhibition; according to his friend and fellow artist Roland Penrose, “He decided to paint small works that could be easily transported in a suitcase.” Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden of Eden was exhibited at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York in 1947, along with 17 other Microbes, and a different selection was reproduced (at actual size) in Ernst’s book Sept Microbes vus à travers un temperament, published in Paris in 1953, with his own text interspersed amid the images.
Ernst’s tiny drawing is one of the few works in the collection for which the thumbnail image in our database is probably pretty close to, if not larger than, actual size. But of course, looking at it onscreen is a poor substitute for viewing the real thing. There’s a whole world to be discovered in Ernst’s Microbes, if you can get close enough to see them.