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Modern Artist: Max Ernst
German born Max Ernst was a provocateur, a shocking and innovative 20th-century avant-garde artist who plumed his unconscious for dreamlike imagery to mock social conventions, as well as to critically respond to global warfare. A soldier in World War I for 4 years, Ernst emerged from battle deeply traumatized and highly critical of western culture. These charged sentiments directly fed into his vision of the modern world as irrational. This conception, along with his humor and verve strongly come through 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 an ďenemy alienĒ; he would be tagged with the same label upon arriving in the United States government 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 experimentations in both subject and technique were highly influential.

Key Ideas / Information
  • 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 existing art by creating works without clear narratives, by making sport of such holy icons as Jesus and Mary, and by creating new means of creating artworks.
  • Ernst was profoundly interested in the art of the mentally ill as a means to access primal emotion and unfettered creativity. The odd juxtapositions of objects within his collages and paintings, and the lack of a concrete relationship between these objects, seek to replicate the raw emotional states which have not been tamed by society.
  • Ernst was one of the first artists to apply Sigmund Freudís dream theories in order to cultivate art making which originated deep in his psyche and to explore the source of his own creativity. Ernstís great attention to his own dreams enabled him to turn personal childhood events and the lasting trauma of war into symbolically rich collages and paintings. Although turning inwards unto himself, Ernst also tapped into the universal unconscious and shared dream imagery so that, theoretically, viewers can identify with the artistís imagery.

Max Ernst was born into a middle-class family of nine children on April 2, 1891 in Brühl, Germany, near Cologne. Ernst first learned painting from his father, a teacher with an avid interest in academic painting. Other than this introduction to amateur painting at home, Ernst never received any formal training in the arts and forged his own artistic techniques in a self-taught manner instead. After completing his studies in philosophy and psychology at the University of Bonn in 1914, Ernst spent four years in the German army, serving on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Early Training
The horrors of World War I had a profound and lasting impact on both the subject matter and visual texture of the burgeoning artist, who mined his personal experiences to depict absurd and apocalyptic scenes. This subversive tendency remained strong in Ernst throughout his career, as the world is literally turned upside down in many of his works. Returning to Germany after World War I, Ernst became a leader of the Dada movement in Cologne while maintaining close ties with the Parisian avant-garde. He began creating his first collages in 1919, reworking mundane materials such as manuals on botany to create stunning, fantastical images.

Mature Period
In 1922, Ernst left his first wife to flee to Paris, where he remained until 1941. In this time, Surrealism came to displace Dadaism with the publication of André Breton's "First Surrealist Manifesto" in 1924, and Ernst became one of the movement's founding members. He developed the technique of frottage (the French word for "rubbing"), laying paper on the floor and rubbing over it with pencil to create the textural effect of wood. This emphasis on the contact between materials, as well as transforming everyday materials to arrive at an image that signified some sort of collective consciousness, would become central to Surrealism's ideal of automatism. This idea that the random and free interaction between artist and material produces an image of the artist's subconscious and inner state proved vital to Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock.

Late Period and Death
War and Fascism followed Ernst to France, and he was sent to internment camps three times before escaping to the United States in 1941. Ernst found his third wife in Peggy Guggenheim, the flamboyant socialite and patron of the arts, who gave her husband prime access to the art scene of New York City. It was here that Ernst, along with a circle of European Surrealists, began to inspire the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in a concrete way. Not before long, Ernst moved to Sedona, Arizona with his fourth wife, the American painter Dorothea Tanning. Ernst and Tanning moved back to France in 1953, where Ernst worked until his death in Paris in 1976.

Max Ernst achieved a rare feat in the life of an artist, which is to establish a glowing reputation and critical following in three countries (Germany, France, and the United States) in the span of his career. 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 (particularly Abstract Expressionism) is easily recognizable.

Max Ernst's arrival in New York during World War II (1941), along with other European avant-garde painters such as Marcel Duchamp, electrified a generation of American artists. Ernst's rejection of traditional painting (as symbolized by the classical style of his father's work) in favor of his own unique techniques (collage, frottage, grattage) 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.

Max Ernst's son, Jimmy Ernst, became a well-known German/American Abstract Expressionist after the war, and helped to cement his father's involvement in the formation of the movement, as he provided him with access to all of its key players, including Pollock and De Kooning.


Below are Max Ernst's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

André Masson
Paul Klee
Marcel Duchamp
Yves Tanguy
Hans Arp
André Breton
Paul Eluard
Max Ernst
Years Worked: 1891 - 1976
Robert Rauschenberg
Jackson Pollock
Willem De Kooning
Barnett Newman
Jimmy Ernst
Peggy Guggenheim
Werner Spies
Abstract Expressionism

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

On his collages: "I was surprised by the sudden intensification of my visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories."

"The role of the painter . . . is to project that which sees itself in him."

Content written by:
  Kara Fiedorek

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See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Written by Artist
Une Semaine De Bonte: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage

La Femme 100 Tetes

Max Ernst: Life and Work

Max Ernst: Dream and Revolution

Max Ernst and Alchemy : A Magician in Search of Myth

Max Ernst: A Retrospective

Max Ernst: Oeuvre-Katalog, the Graphic Work



Surrealism in New York City - Ernst's significance to the Surrealist movement is explored in a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum.

Artist in Popular Culture
The Mars Volta - This American rock band uses images from Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine de Bonte in their album booklets.

Websites about the Artist