Little good comes from war, unless you want to count Surrealism. An early 20th-century art movement, it was a rebellion against the reality that brought war. It was its own declaration of war against modern civilization.

Artists in this movement were trying to free people from the subjugation of the past and the ruination of World War I. They were aiming for a new reality. Artist Max Ernst’s effort was that kind of push-back against the Western culture that brought war. His was an anti-war art revolt best seen in his 1937 painting “The Triumph of Surrealism.”

“The Triumph of Surrealism” and some 400 other of Ernst's works – not only painting, but also sculpture, drawing and collage – are showing at Palazzo Reale Milano, Italy’s first retrospective dedicated to him.

The fog of war

“The Triumph of Surrealism” stands for Ernst’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War. The image is a kind of anti-art, a new reality to impart the chaos of fascism. So, what you get is a monster unleashing horror. You also get something else in my view. You get the painter himself stamping his foot in fury against the folly of war.

Given the seriousness of this art movement made so clear by Ernst’s “The Triumph of Surrealism,” I question why Calvin Tomkins, longtime art critic for The New Yorker, thought it was appropriate to tell a decidedly stupid anecdote about Ernst’s collaboration in an exhibit in his 1972 book “The World of Marcel Duchamp.”

Art criticism gone off the rails

Tomkins went into snickering detail about how the exhibit was held in a glassed-in courtyard behind a café that could only be accessed through a public men’s room.

Once inside, paying visitors saw an aquarium filled with red liquid and a woman’s head of hair floating on top. Wait, he went on.

Protruding from below the surface was a wooden sculpture to which Ernst chained a hatchet in case anyone wished to destroy this thing. At this point, it’s best to remember that this was a Surrealist show, and that the movement’s anti-war stance took anti-art form.

I remind you of this because there’s more to Tomkins’ recounting that’s pretty awful: A young girl (live) in a white communion dress recited obscene poetry. When she finishes, someone smashed the aquarium, and the floor is awash with red water.

The police were called and were about to close down the exhibition on grounds of obscenity when an etching by Albrecht Dürer was discovered among the exhibit items, and the show was permitted to stay open.

But Tompkins doesn’t let the tale end there. He goes on to recount how a very drunk actor John Barrymore mistook an Ernst painting and emptied his bladder over it.

Oddly taken with this incident, Tomkins proceeded to cite gallery owner Julian Levy’s comment in his book “Memoirs of An Art Gallery.” Levy said that Barrymore honored him by urinating on the lower left-hand corner of Ernst’s painting, which the artist had signed on the lower right side.

Granted, the urinating incident was nifty gossip for a gallery owner to tell. He’s a salesman, after all. But I can’t figure out why Tomkins would think it important enough to repeat without at least reminding his readers that Surrealism was a mutiny against the politics of the day.

Even the entryway to the show through a men’s bathroom stood for that activism. It’s bad enough that the non-art world thinks of artists in negative ways. They don’t need an art critic to bolster that thinking. Surrealists deserve better, and so does Ernst.