The German painter Max Ernst (1891-1976), a leading figure in the Dada and surrealist movements, possessed an amazing range of styles and techniques.
Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, in Brühl, Germany. His memories of his childhood were remarkably vivid, and they provided him with many subjects for his later paintings. He attended the University of Bonn, where he studied philosophy and abnormal psychology, which also provided material for his art. In 1912 he turned to painting seriously, but it was only in 1918, after his war service, that he began to develop his own style. He made a series of collages, using illustrations from medical and technical magazines to form bizarre juxtapositions of images.
These collages were Ernst's main production when he was active in the Dada group in Cologne from 1919 to 1922. The Dada movement with its irreverent attitude to conventional art and mores appealed to Ernst and his friends. They produced a number of publications, and their most outrageous act was the famous 1920 Cologne Dada exhibition, to enter which the public had to walk through a public urinal. Dadamax was the pseudonym Ernst used during this period.
In 1922 Ernst moved to Paris, where the surrealists were gathering around André Breton. Ernst had already started doing more illusionistic paintings, strongly influenced by Giorgio de Chirico, and Breton and his friends admired them. In 1923 Ernst finished Les Hommes n'en sauront rein, known as the first Surrealist painting because, as the Phaidon Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art says, it possesses "all the characteristic elements of Surealist painting: the dreamlike atmosphere, the irrational juxtaposition of images of widely different assocaitons, the digrams of celestial phenomena, the desert landscape and the central eroticism." In 1924 he completed one of his most famous pieces, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale. Ernst himself was a winning figure, very charming and brilliant, and particularly fascinating to women. His romantic life was colorful, with many love affairs and several marriages; these were always accompanied by wild stories, and the surrealists enjoyed his life-style as much as they did his art.
In 1925 Ernst introduced his new technique of frottage; he placed sheets of paper on floorboards, tiles, bricks, or whatever was to hand and rubbed them with graphite, producing strange obsessive shapes. This technique fitted in with the surrealist cult of automatic drawing and writing, with their reliance on chance. The texture of these frottage drawings was then applied by Ernst to his paintings, combined with other techniques he invented. He did a series of haunting pictures of forests, birds, and hybrid beasts executed in a rough, painterly fashion. In the 1930s he returned to a more illusionistic style, though often with the same mythology as in his early works; at the same time he began doing sculpture, at first using boulders and carving them slightly to reveal hidden poetic shapes.
At the outbreak of World War II Ernst, like many other surrealists, made his way to the United States, where he married Peggy Guggenheim, the American art collector and dealer. The marriage ended in divorce. Ernst lived in the United States until 1953, spending much of his time in Arizona, painting strange landscapes. After 1953 he returned to Europe, painting and exhibiting, and continuing his personal life in a quieter vein, with his wife, Dorothea Tanning, an American painter. In 1954 at the Venice Biennale, Ernst was awarded one of the art world's top honors for painting. Ernst died in 1976. Since his death, major retrospectives exhibitions celebrating his artistic achievements have toured both Europe and the United States.
Further Reading on Max Ernst
Ernst wrote a short, fanciful account of his life ("to a young friend") which is in the New York Museum of Modern Art publication, Max Ernst, edited by William S. Lieberman (1961). Ernst also wrote poetically on his ideas on art in Beyond Painting (1948), which includes interesting essays by his friends. Ernst's work is remembered in Werner Spies, editor, Max Ernst: A Retrospective, te Neues Publishing Company, 1995; and William Camfield's Max Ernst: Dada and the Dawn of Surrealism, te Neues Publishing Company, 1995. A solid account of Ernst is John Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work (1967).