Wolfgang Beltracchi, 2018
Artistic voice: Max Ernst, 1947, Sedona
Oil on canvas, 90.5 x 120.5 cm

As a result of the exponential population growth during the 19th century, the world went into a desperate search for alternate fertilizer sources. Fritz Haber found one source through chemistry, allowing him to extract fertilizer from thin air. His discovery, a reaction that converts nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia using metal catalysts, was scaled-up to industrial production rates by Carl Bosch using his high pressure reactor vessels. The process became the main source for fertilizers at the dawn of World War I. However, there is a darker side to the Haber-Bosch process; it would also be used in the production of munition nitrates, killing the same people it saved from starvation. That fine line between benefit and destruction was broken September 21, 1921, when an explosion occurred at the BASF Oppau plant, near Ludwigshafen, killing over 500 workers. Today, the Haber-Bosch process continues to give us both fertilizers and explosives.

Professor Tim Osswald, University of Wisconsin–Madison

The ambivalent view of civilisation, as it unfolds between ruins and vegetation, is a central theme in the work of Max Ernst. The Surrealist dealt extensively with Freud, taking inspiration in particular from his theoretical writings on culture. The explosion at the BASF plant in Oppau exemplifies the destructive potential of progress. Humans had succeeded in producing unprecedented volumes of fertiliser. And yet hunger was still not defeated. – Beltracchi also thematizes another explosion in his painting. It happened in 1947, when Ernst was living in America, in the port of Texas City. A ship loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded for no apparent reason; over 500 people died. Ammonium nitrate explosions continue to this day.