Ernst, Max (1891–1976)

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ERNST, MAX (1891–1976)


A major artist of the German Dada and French surrealist movements.

Born in Brühl, Germany, Max Ernst studied philosophy at the University of Bonn, where he first encountered Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories. Traumatic events and dreams of his childhood often formed the creative foundation of his imagery. In Bonn, he joined the Young Rhineland movement, encouraged by August Macke. His early paintings were influenced by cubism and German expressionism, such as Crucifixion (1913), a work also inspired by the German Renaissance master Matthias Grünewald. After reluctantly serving in the German artillery during World War I, Ernst established the Cologne Dada movement with his wife, Luise Straus-Ernst, and Johannes Theodor Baargeld (Alfred F. Gruenwald). Sexual and machine imagery in Katharina Ondulata (1920) find parallels in Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass and the futile Dada machines of Francis Picabia.

At a printer's shop, Ernst discovered a teaching-aids manual. Its assorted botanical, zoological, geological, microscopic, and anatomical illustrations sparked an outpouring of new work: collages, overpaintings onto full-page plates, and oil paintings that duplicated found imagery, as in Elephant of the Celebes (1921) and Oedipus Rex (1922). Giorgio de Chirico influenced his spatial environments. Jean Arp and Tristan Tzara encouraged his contact with other Dada groups, including the Parisians. Ernst exhibited his collages at the Galerie au Sans Pareil in May 1921, a seminal exhibition for establishing the direction of later surrealist imagery. Ernst and Paul Éluard published Répétitions (1922) and Les malheurs des immortels (1922; The misfortunes of the immortals), collaborative books that juxtaposed Ernst's collages with Éluard's poetry. In the fall of 1922, Ernst moved to Paris and soon painted the first surrealist group portrait, The Rendezvous of Friends (1922). His most emblematic alchemical painting, Of This Men Shall Know Nothing (1923), includes a sun, a moon, and a sexually conjoined couple, inspired by Herbert Silberer's psychoanalytic interpretation of alchemy.

In 1924 André Breton's Manifeste du surréalisme called for automatic methods to tap the creative powers of the unconscious mind. Ernst responded with the "invention" of several automatic techniques. He produced frottages by rubbing graphite and charcoal on paper placed over rough surfaces to produce textures that inspired images of forests and other natural forms, as in his Histoire naturelle series (1926). He created grattage paintings by layering paints onto canvas, then placing the canvas over rough surfaces and scraping to produce patterns to provoke his imagination. The resulting grattage paintings of forests, shell-flowers, and bird families continue into the late 1920s. Loplop, a birdman and Ernst's alter ego, presents paintings within paintings from 1928 onward.

Ernst also produced three collage novels—La femme 100 têtes (1929; The hundred headed woman), Rêve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au carmel (1930; A little girl dreams of taking the veil), and Une semaine de bonté (1934; A week of kindness)—assembling multiple collages into novels with only short captions or title pages. To create these collages, Ernst collected illustrations from nineteenth-century serial novels. Unlike the tattered edges and abstracted imagery of the cubist collages of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Ernst's collage pieces were carefully clipped and joined to create unified images that heightened the shock of his strange hybrid figures and environments. These chaotic novels reflect many of the surrealist themes and interests of the 1930s—politics, sexuality, religion, psychoanalysis, violence, natural history, Oceanic art, and alchemy. He also created sculptures, incising river rocks with bird imagery during a summer in 1934 spent with Alberto Giacometti. Paintings of overgrown jungles date to the late 1930s. He developed Oscar Dominguez's technique of decalcomania, compressing paint between canvas and glass to produce spongy and mottled textures. References to his relationship with Leonora Carrington, the English surrealist, can also be found. Works of the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Europe after the Rain (1941), reflect mounting political tensions in Europe, and Adolf Hitler included several works, including Ernst's earlier La belle jardinière (1923; The beautiful gardener), in the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937.

From 1941 to the early 1950s Ernst lived in the United States, first in New York with the collector Peggy Guggenheim, among exiled surrealists. Living in Sedona, Arizona, with his fourth wife, the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning, Ernst painted western landscapes and created his most famous sculpture, Capricorn (1948), a "family portrait." Tanning and Ernst returned to France, where they lived until his death. He was awarded the Venice Biennale Prize in 1954. He continued abstract technical experiments, while his late paintings often included cosmological imagery inspired by space exploration. Throughout his life, he illustrated books of his own poetry, other surrealist writers, and his favorite authors, including Lewis Carroll.

See alsoCubism; Dada; Surrealism.


Camfield, William A. Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism. Munich, 1993.

Legge, Elizabeth. Max Ernst: The Psychoanalytic Sources. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1989.

Russell, John. Max Ernst: Life and Work. New York, 1967.

Spies, Werner. Max Ernst, Loplop: The Artist in the Third Person. Translated by John William Gabriel. New York, 1983.

——. Max Ernst: Collages. Translated by John William Gabriel. New York, 1991.

Spies, Werner, ed. Max Ernst: A Retrospective. Translated by John William Gabriel. Munich, 1991.

Warlick, M. E. Max Ernst and Alchemy. Austin, 2001.

M. E. Warlick