Max Ernst


1. Life and work

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) 1891–1914

Ernst was the eldest son of Roman Catholic parents. His father was a teacher of the deaf and dumb in the small town of Brühl. According to Ernst’s own account (View, 1942), his childhood was ‘marked by some dramatic incidents but was not particularly unhappy’. Certain of these incidents later formed the basis of a personal mythology, which he incorporated into his work. He became interested in the visual arts as a boy, partly through his father who was a keen amateur painter. He received no formal training in art, however, and at his parents’ insistence, after grammar school, he enrolled at the University of Bonn (1909–12). He followed a wide range of courses there, in philosophy, psychiatry and art history, and he was deeply affected by exposure to the ideas of Freud, Nietzsche and the extreme individualist Max Stirner (1806–65). He also came into contact with August Macke and his artistic circle, including Heinrich Campendonck, and developed his own painting sufficiently for the Crucifixion (1913; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Mus.) to be included in the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon in 1913. His painting at this time showed an ability to assimilate fashionable practice rapidly and thoroughly: he was influenced by van Gogh, Campendonck, Macke, Robert Delaunay and the Italian Futurists. His later, more personal themes had not yet become evident, although several paintings represent scenes of bourgeois life in a satirical manner, as in Hat in the Hand, Hat on the Head (c. 1913; London, Penrose priv. col., see Diehl, 1975, p. 10).

(ii) 1914–24

Ernst served in the German Army from 1914 to 1918 but continued to paint meanwhile, temporarily following a semi-Cubist, semi-abstract path under the influence of Delaunay, Arp and Apollinaire (e.g. Laon, 1916; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Mus.). In 1916, when on leave, he held a joint exhibition with Georg Muche at the Sturm-Galerie in Berlin, which specialized in international Expressionist art. Like many German writers and artists he was scarred by his experience of the war; it led him to reject the values of his family and class and to join in with the provocative, critical stance of the nascent Dada movement.

Ernst married the art historian Louise Strauss in 1918. In Cologne during 1919 and 1920 he collaborated with Johannes Baargeld on an exhibition and a series of publications similar in style and spirit to the Dada activities in Zurich and Berlin. He was in touch with Arp, whom he had first met in 1914, and through him with Tristan Tzara and, after 1921, the Parisian Dada circle, including André Breton and Paul Eluard. From 1919 to 1921 he worked mostly on collages, initially in reaction to the work of Giorgio de Chirico and Francis Picabia, but he soon attained a level of startling originality, combining images abstracted from magazines with ambiguous visual devices and, in many instances, long, poetic, nonsense titles (e.g. ). The Parisian group held an exhibition of his collages in May 1921; Eluard was so impressed (as was Breton) that he and his wife Gala visited Cologne in November specifically to meet Ernst. An exceptional intimacy grew up between the three, and as a result Ernst left his wife and young child and moved illegally to Paris in 1922. Before leaving he provided illustrations for Eluard’s collection of poems Répétitions (1922) and collaborated with him on Les Malheurs des immortels (1922), a combination of jointly written prose poems and collage illustrations drawn from old engravings. In Paris Ernst lived with the Eluards, and in 1923 he decorated their new home at Eaubonne (Val d’Oise) with a number of mural paintings (ex-Gal. André-François Petit, Paris, see Spies, 1974–9, ii, pls 636–52), including At the First Limpid Word and Natural History. Between 1921 and 1924 he produced a series of paintings evoking the irrational, portentous qualities of dreams, a subject much in vogue at this time in the nascent Surrealist group. This series includes the Elephant Celebes (c. 1921; London, Tate), Oedipus Rex (1921–2; Paris, priv. col., see Schneede, 1972, pl. 90), Pietà or Revolution by Night (1923; London, Tate), Woman, Old Man and Flower (1923–4; New York, MOMA) and Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924; New York, MOMA). All of these paintings are related to incidents or images from his childhood.

(iii) 1924–38

In March 1924 Eluard went alone to the Far East. In August Ernst and Gala met him in Saigon and persuaded him to return to France. The Eluards travelled back together, and Ernst stayed on alone. When he returned to Paris, he moved into a studio in the Rue Tourlaque. During 1925 the Surrealist group, which had been officially launched by André Breton’s first Manifeste du surréalisme—poisson soluble (1924), was engaged in a debate about the status of painting in the movement and the possibility of applying the practice of automatism to picture-making. Partly in response to this, Ernst developed the technique of frottage, which he claimed to be a form of automatism; it first appeared in Histoire naturelle, a series of 34 frottage drawings that he exhibited and published in 1926 (Eng. edn, London, 1972, 2/1986). For several years he employed variations on the technique in most of his paintings, notably the Forest series. These paintings, in which natural forms predominate, revealed his sense of affinity with Romanticism and with certain of his German predecessors, particularly Albrecht Altdorfer and Caspar David Friedrich (e.g. the Great Forest, 1927; Basle, Kstmus.).

Ernst was briefly under contract to Jacques Viot in 1925; in 1926 he held a successful exhibition at the Galerie van Leer; this led to a further exhibition at the Galerie Georges Bernheim in 1928, which confirmed his status as a fashionable artist in Paris. In 1926 he had made his first attempt at theatrical design, painting sets for Diaghilev’s production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in collaboration with Miró, which made his name in the eyes of the Parisian public. In 1927 he married Marie-Berthe Aurenche and painted After Us—Motherhood (1927; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein-Westfalen), using calm, harmonious forms and warm colours. This painting, along with the three versions of Monument to the Birds (1927; version, Paris, Vicomtesse de Noailles priv. col., see Schneede, 1972, pls 156–8), also illustrates Ernst’s growing preoccupation with bird imagery during this period.

Ernst returned to collage in 1929, when he composed a ‘novel’, La Femme 100 têtes (‘The woman with 100 heads’ or, as a pun, ‘The woman with no head’), consisting of 124 captioned pictures, all of which had been made by adapting images taken from late 19th-century illustrated magazines, usually adventure or love stories . The sequence does not follow an evident narrative, although Stokes (1977) suggested that it constitutes a symbolic autobiography. He used the technique again in Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (Paris, 1930; Eng. trans., New York, 1982) and Une Semaine de bonté (Paris, 1934; Eng. trans., New York, 1976). Each of these books projects recurrent themes of sexuality, anti-clericalism and violence, by dislocating the visual significance of the source material to suggest what has been repressed.

Between 1929 and 1932 Ernst also produced a series of collages featuring ‘Loplop, the Bird-Superior’, who had first appeared in La Femme 100 têtes. In these and other collages Loplop represents the artist himself and presents a sequence of tableaux illustrating Ernst’s technical methods and ideas. Throughout this period Ernst was sensitive to the ideas of the Surrealist group: in 1929–30 Breton’s novel Nadja (1928) and Dalí’s advocacy of the ‘paranoiac-critical’ method were important background influences on his work. After Breton had ‘excommunicated’ numerous early Surrealists, Ernst renewed his solidarity with the group in his collage Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group (1931; New York, MOMA); he had already made an act of homage in his painting At the Rendezvous of Friends (1922; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Mus.).

Although some of his paintings and collages of 1925–31 had a lyrical and decorative character, the imagery in many of them was violent and menacing. This aspect of his work became more prominent after 1933, partly in reaction to the political and social climate of the time—for example the various versions of the Angel of Hearth and Home (1937; see Schneede, 1972, pls 306–8). Like many other German artists and writers Ernst was condemned by the Nazi cultural authorities. He was also influenced at this time by the widespread interest of his circle in non-European art, as reflected in his sculpture of 1934–5, made after his stay at Maloja, near St Moritz in Switzerland, with Alberto Giacometti. In his paintings of this period he explored the theme of metamorphosis and the fascinating cruelty of nature (e.g. La Joie de vivre, 1936–7; London, Penrose priv. col., see 1978 ACGB exh. cat., pl. 12.62). Some parallels to this can be found in the contemporary work of André Masson. During the 1930s Ernst became increasingly well known: he exhibited at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York and participated in the large international exhibitions of Surrealism held in London, New York and Paris in 1936 and 1938; a special issue of Cahiers d’Art was devoted to his work in 1937, the year in which he designed the sets for Sylvain Itkine’s production of Ubu enchaîné at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées.

(iv) 1938–43

Politics had been a strong motivation of Surrealist activity throughout the 1930s. Ernst had remained sympathetic to the goals and actions of the group without involving himself directly in polemics. In 1938, however, he chose to break with Breton and the remaining group rather than accept the condemnation of Paul Eluard. In the same year he moved to St-Martin d’Ardèche (nr Orange) with the English writer and painter Leonora Carrington, whom he had met in London in 1937. He again experimented with sculpture, decorating the exterior of their house with concrete sculptures and bas-reliefs. At the outbreak of the war he was interned as an enemy alien: after considerable difficulties, and separation from Carrington, who underwent a severe mental illness in 1940–41, he succeeded in fleeing to New York in July 1941. After the USA entered the war, Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim, who had helped him to leave France. He became a leading figure among the émigré art community in New York: Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery exhibited his and other European artists’ work and also acted as an outlet and source of encouragement to young American artists interested in Surrealist ideas.

In New York, Ernst developed a technique using paint dripped from a suspended, swinging can. It has some similarities to the ‘drip’ technique used by Jackson Pollock after 1947, although any direct influence remains a matter for conjecture. Ernst reaffirmed his belief in the unconscious sources of his work in Surrealism and Painting (1942; priv. col., see Schneede, 1972, pl. 348), in which a hybrid bird creature is represented in the act of making a drip image. Many of his paintings of this period employ the technique of decalcomania, first advocated as a form of automatism by Oscar Domínguez. Ernst used it to represent vegetation, petrified rock formations and organic metamorphosis. A number of pictures, of which the most notable is Europe after the Rain (c. 1940–42; Hartford, CT, Wadsworth Atheneum), use decalcomania to suggest devastated landscapes and a return to a primordial chaos. Reminiscences of the style of Gustave Moreau are probably deliberate: Ernst’s practice of quoting previous art was particularly evident in this period. The Robing of the Bride (1939–41; Venice, Guggenheim) employs Renaissance perspective devices and Cranach-like figures to represent a pagan marriage; the Temptation of St Anthony (1945; Duisburg, Lehmbruck-Mus.) incorporates references to the visionary tradition of Bosch and Grünewald. Vox angelica (1943; New Haven, CT, Yale U., A.G.), on the other hand, is an anthology of Ernst’s own technical and thematic preoccupations after 1945.

(v) 1943–76

Ernst spent the summer and autumn of 1943 in Arizona with the painter Dorothea Tanning. In 1946 they settled in Sedona (nr Flagstaff, AZ), and two years later he obtained American citizenship. Between 1943 and 1950 he produced a series of paintings in a controlled geometric style. Some of them, such as Euclid (1945; Houston, TX, De Menil priv. col., see Schneede, 1972, pl. 360), recall the Mannerist devices of Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Giovanni Battista Bracelli. Ernst also made a number of sculptures for his house in Sedona, the most important of which, Capricorn (1948; in situ, see Russell, 1967, p. 146), represents a male figure and a female figure surrounded by masks and combines Egyptian, Cycladic and Pre-Columbian influences. A l’intérieur de la vue: Paramythes (text by Eluard, Paris, 1947; Eng. trans., Beverly Hills, 1949) and La Brebis galante (text by Benjamin Péret, Paris, 1949) use collage images that recall his early collaborations with Eluard. From the 1950s his paintings again made extensive use of automatic techniques, principally drawings over which he laid precisely drawn forms and images to organize and pattern the whole, as in Father Rhine (Old Man River) (1954; Zurich, priv. col., see Russell, 1967, p. 141).

In 1953 Ernst returned to France with Dorothea Tanning and had his first major post-war retrospective at Knokke-Het Zoute the same year. Between 1955 and 1964 the couple lived near Chinon (Indre-et-Loire); they then moved to Seillans (Var). Ernst became a naturalized French citizen in 1958. His reputation grew steadily after his return to Europe: in 1954 he was awarded a Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale and major exhibitions of his work were held in New York (1961), Cologne (1962) and Stockholm (1969). He generally avoided close involvement in the artistic debates of the period, distancing himself, in Paris, from both the Tachistes and the group of young acolytes who had gathered around Breton. In 1964 Ernst published Maximiliana ou L’Exercice illégal de l’astronomie in homage to the astronomer Wilhelm Tempel, which contained his last invention, a secret hieroglyphic script. A major retrospective of his work was held in New York and Paris in 1975.

Malcolm Gee

From Grove Art Online

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