German Painter and Sculptor
Born: April 2, 1891 - Bruhl, Germany
Died: April 1, 1976 - Paris, France
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"Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation."
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.
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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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Max Ernst
| 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
| Surrealism in New York City |
Ernst's significance to the Surrealist movement is explored in a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum
| La femme 100 tetes (100 Headless Women) Film || Max Ernst Interview, on new form of Natural History |
| Max Ernst Interview, BBC, 1961 |
| Interview by Patrick Waldberg (1971) || Interview with Max Ernst and Dorothy Tanning by Andy Warhol |
| The Mars Volta |
This American rock band uses images from Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine de Bonte in their album booklets