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The Astronomer at the Museum: Max Ernst and Wilhelm Tempel

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The Astronomer at the Museum: Max Ernst and Wilhelm Tempel


Larry Faltz

Originally published in SkyWAAtch, the newsletter of Westchester Amateur Astronomers, January 2018


Max Ernst. In-text plate (page 25) from 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (65 Maximiliana ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie). 1964



One of the great things about astronomy is how it connects you to so many spheres of human thought and activity, both scientific and cultural. You never know when some unknown link is suddenly revealed, and you learn something remarkable. My latest “astrocultural” discovery was at the Museum of Modern Art, which in the fall of 2017 exhibited a large selection of its extensive holdings of works by the prolific German surrealist artist Max Ernst (1891-1976). Ernst’s art was substantially influenced by the two world wars, and he produced many challenging and intricate works in a variety of media. Ernst is known primarily in museums for his large and dense oil paintings and his unusual techniques of collage (pasting), frottage (rubbing), grattage (scraping paint across the canvas to reveal imprints of objects placed beneath) and decalomania (pressing paint between two surfaces) as well as some unusual sculpture. He was interested throughout his life in print illustrations, where his fine engraving and lithography techniques could be exercised. His magnum opus in book form was Maximiliana, or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy. This large format, limited edition engraved art book (only 75 copies were printed) was made in 1964. There are 30 double-folio pages with text in French, Italian and German, written in collaboration with Russian artist and writer Iliazd (Ilya Zdanevich, 1894-1975), arranged in challenging, often non-linear layouts accompanied by Ernst’s etchings and unusual and undecipherable symbolic text, called calligrams. Several pages from MOMA’s copy were on display in the exhibit.

The subject of Maximiliana is the German astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel (1821-1889). We think of Tempel today, if we think of him at all, as a discoverer of comets. He found 21 of them, including 55P/Tempel–Tuttle, the parent body of the often-prolific Leonid meteor shower, and 9P/Tempel, which was visited (and shot at) by the NASA probe Deep Impact in 2005. Tempel also discovered five minor planets, including 65/Cybele in 1861. He gave the naming rights for this body to Carl August von Steinheil, a German telescope maker, who named it “Maximiliana” in honor of Maximilian II of Bavaria. However, asteroids had previously been given names from mythology and the name Cybele was eventually officially applied after a good bit of controversy and astronomer sniping. There is an asteroid Maximiliana, number 1217, discovered in 1932 and named for the astronomer Max Wolf, the fixation on classical names having long been ignored by that point. Asteroid 3808 is named for Tempel, as is a crater on the moon.

Max Ernst. Frontispiece (page 2) from 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (65 Maximiliana ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie). 1964

The frontispiece of Maximiliana

Tempel was born to a poor German family in Saxony. He was scantily educated but eventually trained as a lithographer, which allowed him to travel through Europe in the 1840’s and 1850’s. He developed an interest in astronomy but was unable to secure a position at a professional observatory. Eventually, because of his persistence as an amateur observer and his discoveries of comets, asteroids and nebulae, he managed to make inroads into the world of professional astronomy, becoming employed at Milan’s Brera Observatory under Schiaparelli and eventually directing (although unofficially, for he never received the formal appointment) the run-down Arcetri Observatory near Florence, where he had to struggle with poor compensation and little money for equipment.

Tempel’s most important discovery was made on October 19, 1859 in Venice. While living in Italy he bought a telescope, a 4” refractor made by Steinheil. He was observing from the famous Scala Contarini del Bovolo, an open staircase attached to a Venetian palazzo (it’s still there), when he noticed a haze around the star Merope in the Pleiades. Now known as the Merope Nebula or NGC 1435, it’s also been called Tempel’s Nebula.


The Scala Contarini del Bovolo in Venice

The Merope Nebula was the first of a number of disputes that plagued Tempel’s career. Many other astronomers could not see the subtle mist surrounding the 4th magnitude star even with larger telescopes, and the discovery was resisted for many years by the established astronomy community. Although he won several prizes and was supported by Dreyer and Schiaparelli, other important astronomers, notably Flammarion and Le Verrier, thought little of Tempel. It probably didn’t help that he was sensitive and given to depression.

With his artist’s eye and skill as a draftsman, Tempel practiced “the art of seeing” as he called it. He eschewed photography, which became a tool for astronomers a couple of decades after its invention in the late 1830’s. Bond and Whipple obtained the first image of a star in 1850. John William Draper made the first reasonable image of the moon in 1840, and his son Henry Draper recorded the absorption line spectrum of Vega (in Hastings, NY) in 1872 and made the first photograph of a nebula (Orion) in 1880. In the 1880’s sensitive dry-plate photography made the process of acquiring images shorter and much less cumbersome.

Tempel never had great instruments to work with, and so he cultivated a kind of primitive reliance on his own perception, which he refined through constant and concentrated observation. He was critical of the reliance of other astronomers on larger instruments and felt that they were neither critical observers nor critical thinkers. In 1878 he wrote “Just as human memory is less cultivated and exercised, owing to the mass of literature accumulated in the course of centuries, so the art of seeing truly is now being lost by the variety of instruments and artificial aids to vision.” True, today we have vastly better ways of seeing the sky, yet there is something ineffable about seeing the actual photons from astronomical objects yourself. But belief in one’s own eyes can be deceiving too: as practiced an observer as he was, Tempel was wrong about the Whirlpool Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy. He doubted their spiral nature (see my article on M51 in the June 2016 SkyWAAtch newsletter) in spite of many reports by his contemporaries, often using those larger telescopes that he disdained, but they revealed the truth about these objects.

What attracted Ernst to Tempel? There are a number of parallels, starting with Tempel’s given name Ernst. Neither did much work in their native Germany. Max Ernst moved to Paris after World War I and was very productive between the wars, making paintings, sculpture and illustrated books. When World War II started, he was interned by the French since he was still a German citizen, but his life was no better after the Nazis took over France because his complex, edgy surrealist art was hardly the type that was endearing to the Third Reich. He was forced to leave, moving to the United States with the help of the influential modern art collector Peggy Guggenheim (to whom he was married for several years), settling in the then sparsely populated town of Sedona, Arizona. He returned to France in 1953 with his third wife, the artist Dorothea Tanning, and became a French citizen in 1958. Although Ernst was recognized as an important artist throughout his career it was only upon his return to France that he began to enjoy financial success.

Max Ernst Of This Men Shall Know Nothing, 1923, Tate Modern, London, Oil on canvas, 31”x25”, depicting representations of eclipse umbra and penumbra, among other things.

Tempel similarly had left Germany as a young man for his art, in this case lithography. He first went to Copenhagen but eventually he found his way to Marseilles, where he continued to do lithography while futilely trying to get a position at the observatory. He then went to Italy where his amateur observations bore fruit. He returned to Marseilles and briefly worked at the observatory. He continued to observe mostly on his own until, still a German citizen, he was expelled from France’s after that country’s ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the unrest that followed. He lived the remainder of his life in Italy. He was a talented sketcher of nebulae, but many of his drawings were never published. In 1886 he wrote to the astronomer John Louis Emil Dreyer that “we hitherto have not found an artist capable of copying my nebulae.” Dreyer wrote Tempel’s obituary in the February 1890 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

It was undoubtedly Tempel’s conception of seeing as an “art” that most appealed to Max Ernst. Ernst’s provocative and surrealist artworks are a challenge for the viewer, demanding a more committed form of observation than previous styles. In that respect it would not be surprising that he felt kinship with Tempel.

Ernst must have had an interest in astronomy, having had a broader, more modern education than Tempel, although he was never known to be an observer. Throughout his artistic output there are astronomy-themed works, most of them cryptic or even humorous surreal takes on the universe, but particularly involving circular or spherical objects like the Sun and planets. Ernst wrote “The significance of the sun, moons, constellations, nebulae, galaxies and space as a whole outside the earth zone have steadily taken root during the last century in human consciousness as well as in my work.”

The genesis of the book Maximiliana, or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy is difficult to pin down, but Ernst probably first came across asteroid number 65 in Flammarion’s Astronomie Populaire, the distribution of which was very widespread for decades after its 1880 publication. In that work, asteroid 65 was identified as Maximiliana and that may have piqued Max’s interest. The asteroid made its way into the 1931 “visible poem” A l’interieur de la vue, where Ernst provides a surrealist take on the Sun. The underlying image is a plate from Flammarion’s book of the comparative sizes of the Sun’s disc as seen from the planets and two asteroids. The asteroids were unnamed by Flammarion but were supposed to represent bodies at the inner and outer edges of the asteroid belt. Ernst picked the names Maximiliana and Feronia (asteroid 72, discovered in 1861 by CHF Peters at Hamilton College in upstate New York) for the outer and inner asteroids. Ernst drew fanciful images inside of all the discs (the Sun from Venus shows a female breast, reflecting her mythological qualities). The small image of Maximiliana is a kind of spooky Halloween face.

Two Ernst works on paper: (L) Ernst’s surreal representation of the sun as seen from 8 planets and two asteroids, from Paul Eluard’s A l’interieur de la vue, 1931. ® Little Tables Around the Earth, from the book Natural History (Histoire naturelle), 1926

The life of Tempel was little commented upon after his death. Between 1962 and 1964, Iliazd researched the files of observatories in France and Italy for information on Tempel and produced a short factual biography, L’art de voir de Guillaume Tempel (The Art of Seeing of Wilhelm Tempel), only 70 copies of which were printed.

Max Ernst. In-text plate (page 5) from 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (65 Maximiliana ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie). 1964

Page 5 of Maximiliana. The text reads “Invisible a l'oeil nu elle paraissait dans sa famille etre la plus éloignée du soleil” (“Invisible to the naked eye she seemed to be the furthest member of her family from the sun”)

In 1964, Ernst completed the Maximiliana and printed 75 copies (“65+X”). All of the pages are displayed in high resolution on the Museum of Modern Art’s web site[1]. The frontispiece says that Ernst is illustrating and commenting on the work of Tempel as brought to light by Iliazd. The text formally begins on page 4 with a checkerboard layout that takes some inspecting to piece together. The text in French simply states that “Maximiliana planet 65 located between Mars and Jupiter was discovered eleven o'clock on Friday, March 8, 1861 on the terrace of the old observatory of Marseille by Ernst William Leberecht Tempel.” Ernst’s surrealist text layout challenges reading and extends the art of seeing to the text, not just the images. Undoubtedly that choice is a consequence of Ernst’s roots in Dadaism and surrealism, which both started out as literary art forms, with journals and magazines featuring all sorts of bizarre layouts and word jumbles designed to deconstruct and amplify language and written imagery. There is no punctuation on any of the pages, and the layout of one, page 28, was so strange that I found it almost impossible to piece the words together to get a coherent understanding of the text.

There are several threads in the text. Pages 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 and 20 are in German and contain Tempel’s 1849 poem “Der Glöckner” (The Bell-Ringer), in which Tempel muses on his childhood in a melancholy and wistful way. There is no direct relationship to astronomy in this material. These pages have the largest number of inscrutable, untranslatable calligrams.

(L) Wilhelm Tempel ® Max Ernst

Pages 4-8, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 24-27 are in French and tell two different kinds of stories. One simply reports a number of Tempel’s findings, listing his comet and asteroid discoveries and the discovery of the Merope Nebula (see the image of page 24 at the head of this article), along with a comment on the change of the name to Cybele because it provoked “great dissatisfaction of the mythologists.” There is also text by Ernst on page 8 commenting on the naming of asteroid 1217 as Maximiliana seventy years after Tempel discovered Maximiliana/Cybele. Pages 11, 13 and 15 are Tempel’s observations of clouds and fog over the Mediterranean from his home in Marseilles, illustrating his keen sensitivity to subtle visual phenomena. Pages 19 and 21 are in Italian and are Tempel’s detailed observations of the aurora borealis as seen from Milan between 11 pm and midnight on April 9, 1871, again illustrating his perceptive eye. Pages, 3, 9, 23 and 29, contain just etchings and calligrams.

The essence of the entire work is surely the wonderful line “Ce ne sont pas les grandes lunettes qui font les grandes astronomes” (It is not great telescopes that make great astronomers.) which snakes from top to bottom on the right edge of page 24. This summarizes Tempel’s commitment to visual observation and belief in his own powers of perception, the source of much of the controversy in his relations with other astronomers, when he claimed that the employment of larger telescopes was somehow corrupting. It’s also a definite challenge posed by artists to their viewers starting at the beginning of the 20th century, with the rapid succession of “abstract” movements: cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, futurism, abstract expressionism and even op art. It’s not hard to figure out the basic point of the Mona Lisa, but try to find the guitar in Picasso’s 1912 cubist masterpiece Man with a Guitar. It’s even harder to find the man!

It’s interesting to think what Tempel would make of today’s world of astronomic research, which depends almost not at all on the human eye. Large telescopes with big sensitive cameras capture images that are analyzed by computer programs. If there is any human ocular perception applied, it is to on-screen images from those sensors, created and perhaps even chosen for the astronomer by a computer. Tempel only had the visible electromagnetic spectrum to work with, while we can observe in pretty much the entire range of energies and wavelengths.

Yet I suspect Tempel, a financially-challenged, self-taught astronomer with a background physically making art, would appreciate the way in which amateurs use small telescopes and cameras to capture astronomic images and bring the images to life by computer processing, a step that is ultimately more artistic than scientific. The best amateur imagers today are practicing the “art of seeing,” aren’t they?

(L) Original SDSS image showing Hanny’s Voorwerp, a faint smudge just below IC 2497. © Hanny’s Voorwerp imaged by Hubble. ® The Teacup Galaxy SDSS 1430 +13 imaged by Hubble. The green color comes from ionized oxygen in an ionization echo.

In addition, perceptive vision, perseverance and a critical mind are still productive. Visual objects can be discovered by the human eye, although not directly through the telescope. Consider Hanny’s Voorwerp, the first of a class of objects called “quasar ionization echoes.” In 2007, young Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel was examining images from the Sloane Digital Sky Survey as part of the Galaxy Zoo “citizen science” project, which asked ordinary citizens interested in astronomy to classify galaxies for a statistical analysis of their formation and evolution. She noticed a blob of gas near the spiral galaxy IC 2497 in Leo Minor. No one had ever remarked on this object before. Subsequently, astronomers found at least 19 of these entities, all near galaxies. They are thought to be concentrations of gas, possibly from a tidally disrupted companion galaxy, excited by radiation from a quasar in the associated galaxy. They were given the name “voorwerpjes,” the Dutch for “small objects.” It’s an exotic name in English, but just a plain and non-committal description in Dutch. Needless to say, amateurs have now imaged Hanny’s Voorwerp.

There seems to be little subjectivity in astronomy today. Astronomers rarely disagree about what they are seeing, arguing only whether their processes for data collection are valid and whether that data supports or refutes theoretical models. Although Jodie Foster listened to the output of the Very Large Array with headphones to receive ET’s broadcast in the movie Contact, detection is just not done that way. Analysis of the temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background is done by computers running Fourier transforms, not by people staring at the Planck image and saying “it looks to me like the variance is favored at a distance of one degree. That’s my gut feeling.” LIGO’s recognizes gravitational waves by signals from a computer, not by a bunch of guys listening for the audible tweet that the merger produced, LIGO being turned into a musical instrument just for the purpose of public understanding.

One can ask whether observing through a telescope is now a pointless exercise. For direct astronomical discovery the human eye is no longer an adequate instrument. Its wavelength sensitivity is too narrow and its photonic efficiency is practically nil since it evolved for photopic rather than scotopic vision, meaning we’re happy to see things in the daytime and at night we might as well sleep. But there is a thrill at having the actual photons from those distant and still mysterious objects directly stimulate your nervous system. There is an “art of seeing” even for amateur astronomers with small telescopes. That’s quite evident when we do outreach events. We have to teach people to be patient at the eyepiece and to learn how to see the surface features of Mars or the Cassini Division between Saturn’s A and B rings, or use averted vision for faint deep sky objects.

For experienced amateurs, there’s the joy of encountering faint objects under dark skies. That means more planning than just taking the scope out onto the stairway (more likely the driveway for us) like Tempel did in pre-electric light Venice. Last summer, under dark skies at the Medomak Astronomy Retreat in Maine, I saw for the first time the Blue Flash nebula, NGC 6905, an 11.9-magnitude planetary in Delphinus. In my 8” SCT with binoviewer and a pair of Televue 24mm Panoptic eyepieces, it had the promised blue color and even showed some structure. I looked at it for a while on 3 consecutive nights, my appreciation of its subtleties growing each time. In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia” Sherlock Holmes chides Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.” Practicing the “art of seeing,” as Tempel would have us do, makes us into true observers. Looking at challenging art does that as well.


Three astronomy-themed paintings by Max Ernst. (L) The World of the Naïve, 1962, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Oil 46”x 35”. © The Birth of a Galaxy, 1969, 36”x28”, Oil, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Germany. ® Violette Sonne, 1962, Oil on wax paper, A mere 8”x7”, this work sold for $88,242 at Bonham’s in London in 2012.

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