Max Ernst

(1891—1976) German artist

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German-born painter, who became a French citizen in 1958. He was a leading member of the dada and surrealist movements and developed the technique of frottage.

Under parental pressure, Ernst studied philosophy and psychology at Bonn University until World War I but showed more interest in painting and in the art of the insane. After service in the war Ernst wrote, ‘On 1 August 1914 Max Ernst died. He was resurrected on 11 November 1918 as a young man who aspired to find the myths of his time’ and, ‘How to overcome the disgust and fatal boredom that military life and the horrors of war create? Howl? Blaspheme? Vomit?’. As leader of the Cologne branch of the dada movement in 1919, Ernst did indeed blaspheme against conventional culture. On one occasion he held an exhibition whose entrance was through the lavatory of a beer hall. At the same time he became one of the first artists to use collage and photomontage for expressive purposes.

Ernst is best known, however, for the paintings he did after moving to Paris in 1922. Works such as L'Eléphant de Célébes and Les Hommes n'en sauront rien, with their dreamlike arrangements of strange images in empty landscapes, are among the first masterpieces of surrealist painting. In 1924 he joined the surrealist movement at its inception and continued to paint in an essentially surrealist style for the rest of his life. The following year saw his development of frottage, which involved adapting the technique of brass rubbing to surfaces such as leaves, wood grain, and pieces of torn paper; it liberated him from traditional figurative technique in, for example, his series of forest paintings. Vegetation was a recurring theme in his work, as were birds, monstrous creatures, and petrified cities.

After the German occupation of France, Ernst was imprisoned briefly and in 1941 he left for the USA, where he married Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979). Following his return to France in 1949, his paintings became more richly coloured and abstract. He won the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1954.

Subjects: Art.