Max Ernst was a prominent German painter, sculptor, graphic artist and poet, one of the founders of the Dada movement and Surrealism.
Max (Maximillian) Ernst was born on April 2, 1891 in a German town of Brühl, situated in the valley of the Rhine river, on the half-way between Cologne and Bonn. The tiny settlement was built around the grandiose baroque Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces with park.
His father worked in a school for deaf children. As an amateur painter, he inculcated his son love to drawing and painting, being his first and only teacher of art in Max’s childhood. The boy trained hardly in his leisure time.
In 1908 – 1914 Max Ernst studied at the University of Bonn, taking courses of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and art history. It was there where he met August Macke (who would later become one of the leading representatives of German Expressionism). Macke inspired Max to dedicate his life to art only.
1900s – 1910s were the peak of avant-garde art – various movements, like Futurism, Cubism, Abstractionism emerged at once, attracting more and more new adherents. Ernst exhibited his works for the first time at the First German Autumn Salon at Herwarth Walden’s Sturm Gallery in Berlin. The Salon was a significant show of radical art of that time in Germany. Although it was the abstract composition by Wassily Kandinsky, which had most of the public’s attention, Ernst’s pieces also received approving reviews – these were rather “innocent” paintings, create under the impact of Henri Rousseau’s primitivism and urbanisitc cubism of Lyonel Feininger.
In 1914 Max was called up to the front to serve in the army, where he served in the artillery. War had dramatically affected the young man, so his joining the Dadaist group in Cologne in 1919 was absolutely logical. Dadaism was a movement, originated in the circle of artists, writers and critics, who were disappointed with moral norms and traditional values of the society that had entered the fratricidal war.
Ernst worked under the pseudonym “Dadamax” and published magazines “Der Strom” and “Die Schammade”. The same year the master rendered his first well-known collages, for which he used clippings from prints in scientific journals, old catalogues, brochures, etc. Objects, exempted from context, turned into surrealistic images. During several years Max Ernst created serieses of such works he called novel-collages.
The painter’s exhibition in Paris in 1921, organized by French Dadaists, occurred to be a true sensation for the artistic society. So animated by success Max completely moved to Paris after the break up with his wife Luise Straus (the first marriage among his four official ones).
That marked the beginning of the “French period” in Ernst’s oeuvre. His bright personality, scandalous reputation guaranteed him a warm welcome among Parisian vanguard. In 1924 Max joined Andre Breton and his group with whom he co-founded Surrealism that replaced Dadaism.
It’s commonly known that classical art supposes recognition and awareness of the subject. Images, common for surrealism, couldn’t be attributed, as they were images of unconscious reality, introduced through the method of psychological “automatism” (Breton’s term), or technique of free associations that were impossible to foresee and rationally explain. Max Ernst depicted scenes from parallel worlds, with crystal forms and pseuo-landscapes with imaginative things. He artistically re-invented the Universe.
Searching for technique that would be more “random” then already mentioned collage, Ernst invented frottage – a special method of imprinting texture of a rough and coarse materials on paper. Sheet was placed over small piece of unhewn wood or parquet floor and rubbed with charcoal. The artist finished it with paint. He also used other automatic techniques of creating pieces, splashing pigments on canvas to get abstract shapes, which could be turned into a sort of primitive floral ornament or landscape with tangled roots, lava or water surface. These landscapes were “inhabited” with whimsical creatures that reminded of dryads, seahorse or various insects.
The feeling of a new approaching war gradually gave Max’s composition tragical flavor. For instance, in “The Embalmed Forest” he depicted the throne-like tree-crowns with dark sky, filled with pale moonlight, on the background. The canvas dates back to 1933, when Hitler came to power.
During the uneasy 1930s the master experimented with grattage (from French grater – to scrub), when layers of hardened paint were partly removed from the canvas surface, forming color compositions that were further elaborated. “Petrified City” (1933) and “Landscape with Lake and Chimeras” (1940) and were created that way.
Another theme that emerged in the artist’s legacy at that period was nightmares. His “Hunger feast” could be inspired by “Metamorphosis” of Franz Kafka, where the main hero woke up finding himself transformed into an insect.
Max Ernst had rather reach romantic life. In 1937 he left Paris together with his new girlfriend, English artist Leonora Carrington, and settled in the South of France.
In two years the German-born painter was interned by the officials as an “undesirable foreigner”, but soon he was released. In 1940 Ernst was imprisoned again, but he managed to escape. Hence he had to shelter from Gestapo agent. Fortunately, his friends from the USA helped him and in December, 1940, persecuted Max managed to depart there together with Peggy Guggenheim, who, in fact, rescued his life.
Peggy Guggenheim was an American art-connoisseur, daughter of a wealthy family and founder of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. She collected best samples of then-contemporary art and helped promotion of young artists. Max obtained American citizenship and married Peggy soon. The marriage didn’t last as they divorced in 1943. After that Ernst moved to Arizona together with Dorothea Tanning. He continued painting. The heritage of that period witnesses influence of New-York school of Abstract Expressionism.
Max Ernst missed France and in 1953 he decided to return to Paris. In 1958 he obtained French citizenship and after that stopped his wandering. Yet he remained a Cosmopolite person, as his exhibitions were successfully held in various cities of Europe and America.
The artist received numerous awards, among them ‑ the Legion of Honour, and was recognized as one of the greatest artist of the 20th cent.
Max Ernst remained died on April 2, 1976, a day before his 85th birthday.