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Artists Max Ernst

Max Ernst

German Painter and Sculptor

Movements: Dada, Surrealism

Born: April 2, 1891 - Bruhl, Germany

Died: April 1, 1976 - Paris, France

Quotes

"The role of the painter... is to project that which sees itself in him."
Max Ernst
"Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them."
Max Ernst
"He who speaks of collage speaks of the irrational."
Max Ernst
"All good ideas arrive by chance."
Max Ernst
"Art has nothing to do with taste. Art is not there to be tasted."
Max Ernst

"Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation."

Synopsis

German-born Max Ernst was a provocateur, a shocking and innovative artist who mined his unconscious for dreamlike imagery that mocked social conventions. A soldier in World War I, Ernst emerged deeply traumatized and highly critical of western culture. These charged sentiments directly fed into his vision of the modern world as irrational, an idea that becamethe basis of his artwork. Ernst's artistic vision, along with his humor and verve come through strongly in his Dada and Surrealists works; Ernst was a pioneer of both movements. Spending the majority of his life in France, during WWII Ernst was categorized as an "enemy alien"; the United States government affixed the same label when Ernst arrived as a refugee. In later life, in addition to his prolific outpouring of paintings, sculpture, and works-on-paper, Ernst devoted much of his time to playing and studying chess which he revered as an art form. His work with the unconscious, his social commentary, and broad experimentation in both subject and technique remain influential.

Key Ideas

Max Ernst attacked the conventions and traditions of art, all the while possessing a thorough knowledge of European art history. He questioned the sanctity of art by creating non-representational works without clear narratives, by making sport of religious icons, and by formulating new means of creating artworks to express the modern condition.
Ernst was profoundly interested in the art of the mentally ill as a means to access primal emotion and unfettered creativity.
Ernst was one of the first artists to apply Sigmund Freud's dream theories investigate his deep psyche in order to explore the source of his own creativity. While turning inwards unto himself, Ernst was also tapping into the universal unconscious with its common dream imagery.
Interested in locating the origin of his own creativity, Ernst attempted to freely paint from his inner psyche and in an attempt to reach a pre-verbal state of being. Doing so unleashed his primal emotions and revealed his personal traumas, which then became the subject of his collages and paintings. This desire to paint from the sub-conscious, also known as automatic painting was central to his Surrealist works and would later influence the Abstract Expressionists.

Most Important Art

Max Ernst, Celebes (1921)
At center, a large round shape dominates the composition that Ernst based upon a photograph of a Sudanese bin for storing corn which the artist has refigured as an elephant-like mechanical being from the subconscious.The painting's title comes from a childish and naughty German rhyme with that starts off, "The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease," a bawdy reference to those in the know. Ernst's painting demonstrates his indebtedness to Freudian dream theory with its odd juxtapositions of disparate objects. Despite this disparity - a headless/nude woman, the bits of machinery - the painting holds together as a finished composition. Ernst's work elicits discomfort in the not knowing of his intentions and also, in early twentieth century audiences, disgust because of its irrelevant depiction of the human form (the headless nude) which is revered within art making (since people are made in God's image). Through this work, Ernst questions which is the "real" world - that of night-time and dreams - or that of the waking state.
Oil on canvas - Tate Gallery, London
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Biography

Childhood

Max Ernst Biography

Max Ernst was born into a middle-class Catholic family of nine children in Bruhl, Germany, near Cologne. Ernst first learned to paint from his father, a strict disciplinarian who was deaf, and a teacher who held an avid interest in academic art. A good deal of Ernst's work as an adult sought to undermine authority including that of his father. Other than this introduction to amateur painting at home, Ernst never received any formal training in art: thus he was responsible for his own artistic techniques. Ernst matriculated at the University of Bonn in 1914 to study philosophy but soon abandoned it, later claiming that he avoided "any studies which might degenerate into breadwinning." Instead, the artist preferred those areas of study considered "futile by his professors - predominately painting...seditious philosophers, and unorthodox poetry." At this time, Ernst became deeply interested in psychology and the art of the mentally ill. When World War I broke out Ernst was conscripted into the German army and served in an artillery division in which he directly experienced the drama and bloodshed of trench warfare - he served on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. Ernst was one of multiple artists who emerged from military service emotionally wounded and alienated from European traditions and conventional values.

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Early Training

Although primarily self-taught, Ernst was influenced by the works of Vincent van Gogh and August Macke, and the canvases of Giorgio de Chirico prompted his interest in dream imagery and the fantastical. Ernst mined the experiences of his childhood and war to depict both absurd and apocalyptic scenes. A subversive tendency remained strong in Ernst throughout his career, as he literally turned the world upside down in many of his works. Returning to Germany after armistice, Ernst along with the artist-poet Jean Arp helped form the Dada group in Cologne; simultaneously he maintained close ties with the Parisian avant-garde. Ernst began creating his first collages in 1919, reworking mundane materials such as scientific manuals and illustrated catalogs from the turn-of-the-century to create new stunning, fantastical images without set narratives. This irrational image-making allowed Ernst to make the world of dreams, the subconscious, and the accidental all visual as he plumbed his own psyche for inspiration and to confront his own trauma.

Ernst edited journals while in Cologne and helped stage a Dada exhibition in a public restroom where visitors were greeted by a sweet young girl reciting obscene poetry. Also on view was a sculpture by Ernst with an axe alongside it that the public was invited to use to attack and to destroy the piece of art. This audience participatory event caused quite a scandal to bourgeois sensibilities.

Mature Period

Max Ernst Photo

In 1922, Ernst left his first wife behind and moved to Paris, where he would live and work until 1941 - when World War II made it impossible to remain in Europe. During these decades, Surrealism came to displace Dadaism with the publication of André Breton's "First Surrealist Manifesto"(1924), and Ernst became one of the movement's founding members. Ernst and his artist-colleagues were discovering the possibilities of autonomism and dreams; in fact, his artistic investigations were aided by hypnosis and hallucinogenics. In 1925, in order to activate the flow of imagery from his unconscious, Ernst began to experiment with frottage (pencil rubbings of such things as wood grain, fabric, or leaves), a technique he in fact developed, and decalcomania (the technique of transferring paint from one surface to another by pressing the two surfaces together). His experiments and technical innovations led to finished images, accidental patterns, and definite textures which he would then incorporate into his drawings and paintings. This emphasis on the contact between materials, as well as transforming everyday materials in order to arrive at an image that signified some sort of collective consciousness, would become central to Surrealism's concept of automatism.

Late Years and Death

Max Ernst Portrait

By 1933, Hitler and the Nazi Party had seized control of Germany. By the fall of 1937, Hitler had accumulated approximately sixteen-thousand works of avant-garde art from Germany's national museums, and shipped six hundred and fifty works to Munich to be for his infamous exhibition "Degenerate Kunst" (Degenerate Art). It appears that Ernst had at least two paintings on display in the exhibition, both of which have since disappeared, or most likely were destroyed. Ernst fled from France with the Gestapo on his heels after being interned three times as a German national. As a refugee in New York where along with such important European avant-garde artists as Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian, he electrified a generation of American artists. Ernst met Peggy Guggenheim, the flamboyant socialite, gallery owner, and patron of the arts, who was to become his third wife. Guggenheim provided Ernst entry to New York's burgeoning art scene. Ernst's rejection of traditional painting techniques, styles, and imagery (as symbolized by the classical style of his father's work) captivated young American painters, who similarly sought to forge a fresh and unorthodox approach to painting. He had a particularly strong effect on the direction of Jackson Pollock's painting, who became interested in the collage aspects of Ernst's work, as well as his tendency to use his art as an externalization of his internal state. The younger artists were greatly interested in Ernst having captured the unconscious and the accidental in his art making, and his great Surrealist experimentation with autonomism and automatic writing. In 1942, Ernst experimented with "Oscillation" or painting by swinging a paint filled can punctured multiple times with holes over the canvas; this especially impressed Pollock.

Divorcing Guggenheim, Ernst soon relocated to Sedona, Arizona with his fourth wife, the American Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning. Ernst and Tanning ultimately moved back to France in 1953. In 1954, Ernst was awarded the main painting prize at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In 1971, to honor the artist's 80th birthday, a major retrospective toured through America and Europe. Ernst was active as an artist up until his death in Paris in 1976. He was interred at Paris's famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Legacy

Max Ernst Late Photo

Max Ernst achieved a rare feat in that he established a glowing reputation and critical following in three countries simultaneously (Germany, France, and the United States) while still living. Although Ernst is an artist who is better known by art historians and academics than by the general public today, his influence in shaping the direction of mid-century American art is easily recognizable. Through his association with Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst interacted with the Abstract Expressionists directly, and via his son, Jimmy Ernst, who became a well-known German/American Abstract Expressionist painter after the war.

While based in Sedona, Ernst became attracted to Southwest Native American Navajo art as artistic inspiration. The younger Abstract Expressionists, in particular Pollock, in turn became fascinated with the art of sand painting, which are deeply tied to healing rituals and evocations of the spiritual. Ernst remains a foundational figure for those artists deeply interested in technique, psychology, and the desire to shock and confront social mores.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Max Ernst
Interactive chart with Max Ernst's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Caspar David Friedrich
August Macke
Vincent van Gogh
Giorgio de Chirico
Marcel Duchamp

Friends

André Breton
Paul Eluard

Movements

Dada
Surrealism
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Years Worked: 1891 - 1976

Artists

Jackson Pollock
Willem de Kooning
Cindy Sherman
Sigmar Polke

Friends

Dorothea Tanning
Jimmy Ernst
Peggy Guggenheim

Movements

Surrealism
Abstract Expressionism

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Max Ernst

Books
Articles
Audio
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Max Ernst: Life and Work

By Werner Spies

Max Ernst: Dream and Revolution

By Werner Spies, Iris Muller-Westermann

Max Ernst and Alchemy : A Magician in Search of Myth

By Franklin Rosemont, M. E. Warlick

Max Ernst: The Compleat Experimenter

By Robert Hughes
TIME
April 12, 1976

Surrealism in New York City

Ernst's significance to the Surrealist movement is explored in a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum

transcripts
Interview by Patrick Waldberg (1971)

Interview with Max Ernst and Dorothy Tanning by Andy Warhol

in pop culture
The Mars Volta

This American rock band uses images from Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine de Bonte in their album booklets

Dada
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
ArtStory: Dada
Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who in the early twentieth century founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. His theories on the human unconscious, arhcetypal forms and free association were very influential on many forms of modern art, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Sigmund Freud
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, commonly associated with the Post-Impressionist period. As one of the most prolific and experimental artists of his time, van Gogh was a spontaneous painter and a master of color and perspective. Troubled by personal demons all his life, many historians speculate that van Gogh suffered from a Bipolar disorder.
ArtStory: Vincent van Gogh
August Macke
August Macke
August Macke
August Macke was a German painter and a leader in the Expressionist group The Blue Rider. A close friend of Franz Marc, Paul Klee and Robert Delaunay, Macke's paintings were more Post-Impressionist and Fauvist in style, but were very expressive in terms of color and mood. Macke was killed on the front lines during World War I, at the age of 27.
August Macke
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico was a Greek-Italian painter and sculptor commonly associated with Surrealism. Initially discovered by Picasso and Apollinaire in France, de Chirico's best known Surrealist paintings incorporated metaphysical subject matter and sculptural still-life. Instead of land- or cityscapes, de Chirico's art is more emblematic of a dreamscape.
ArtStory: Giorgio de Chirico
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.
Hans Arp
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: André Breton
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
ArtStory: Marcel Duchamp
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neo-plasticism.
ArtStory: Piet Mondrian
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector, patron, and eclectic personality deeply connected to modern art. She gave important exhibitions to many Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
ArtStory: Peggy Guggenheim
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock
Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning is an American painter whose work is commonly associated with the Surrealists. Heavily influenced by the likes of Duchamp, Ray, Tanguy and perhaps most of all Max Ernst, her former husband, Tanning created a number of paintings in the 1940s that are now considered seminal to the Surrealist movement, including her dream-like self-portrait Birthday. Later in life much of Tanning's work adopted increasingly abstract forms, yet always maintained a distinctly Surrealist aesthetic.
Dorothea Tanning
Jimmy Ernst
Jimmy Ernst
Jimmy Ernst
Jimmy Ernst, an artist and the son of Surrealist painter Max Ernst, played an active role in the Abstract Expressionist scene in New York, where he served as director of the Art of This Century gallery.
Jimmy Ernst
Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich was a nineteenth-century German Romantic landscape painter, and considered by many academics to be the finest German painter of his time. Like his contemporaries JMW Turner and John Constable, Friedrich's paintings portrayed natured as a divine presence. The inherent expressiveness in his work later helped inform avant-garde movements like Expressionism and Surrealism.
Caspar David Friedrich
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard was a French poet, and one of the original participants in the French Surrealism movement, forming strong ties with the likes of Breton, Aragon and Ernst. Eluard was also active in the French Resistance during World War II, but later in life joined the Communist Party, became a Stalin sympathizer and renounced the Surrealism movement.
Paul Eluard
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman is an American photographer and film director, best known for her conceptual portraits. Sherman has raised challenging and important questions about the role and representation of women in society, the media and the nature of the creation of art.
ArtStory: Cindy Sherman
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke was a German painter and photographer. In 1963 Polke founded the painting movement "Kapitalistischer Realismus" (Capitalistic Realism) with Gerhard Richter and Konrad FIscher. It is an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial short-hand of advertising.
Sigmar Polke