2. Working methods and technique
Source: Oxford University Press
After 1918 Ernst rarely employed conventional techniques in his paintings. His early work shows that he was a technically skilled painter and draughtsman. Between 1918 and 1924 virtually all his paintings and prints were based on the principle of collage, and this practice remained central to his later work. His use of collage was very different from that of the Cubists and had more in common with the photomontage of John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann. Cubism played with shape, texture and different kinds of mimesis, within a formally and thematically coherent whole. In his collages, however, Ernst abstracted figurative elements from their original context in order to create new forms, in which the familiar became strange and fantastic. This technique did not always involve literally cutting and sticking; some of his earliest collages were made by painting out much of the original—typically a technical illustration—and elaborating on what was left, changing its meaning in the process, as in Stratified Rock Gift of Nature Composed of Gneiss … (1920; New York, MOMA).
Ernst’s major paintings of 1921–4 do not employ collage, but their composition is based on the collage principle. Oedipus Rex and La Belle Jardinière (1923; ex-Düsseldorf, Kstmus., destr. 1937, see Schneede, 1972, pl. 100), a Surrealist adaptation of Raphael, reworked images originally created in the collages Parole (1921) and Sacra conversazione (1921); Pietà or Revolution by Night fuses two figures derived from paintings by de Chirico and Ernst himself, in a pose taken from the iconographic conventions of Christian art. The Elephant Celebes is represented in a landscape setting reminiscent of de Chirico. The main body of the ‘elephant’ (Ernst entitled the painting ‘Célèbes’; ‘elephant’ is a later nickname) is closely based on a photograph of an African grain store; a hose ‘trunk’ ending in a bull’s head, and a mechanical eye, have been effectively ‘stuck on’ to this. The phallic tree on the right-hand side of the painting is derived from Ernst’s collage the Hat Makes the Man (1920; New York, MOMA). The composition as a whole corresponds to Ernst’s definition of collage as ‘the culture of systematic displacement’ and ‘the exploitation of the chance meeting of two distant realities on an unfamiliar plane’ (Beyond Painting, paraphrasing Breton and Lautréamont).
The collages for Répétitions and Les Malheurs des immortels were based on wood-engravings from 19th-century illustrated magazines. Ernst returned to this technique in the collage novels of 1929–34. These were made by pasting images from different sources on to a single base illustration. In many cases his intervention was minimal; in the Oedipus sequence to Une Semaine de bonté, for instance, several images have been changed only in the replacement of a human head by that of a bird. The completed collages were sent to the printer to be reproduced by photo-engraving; the actual pasting cannot be discerned in the published plates, and this greatly enhances their impact.
Ernst achieved a comparable level of refinement in the frottage technique. The drawings for Histoire naturelle were made by placing sheets of paper over different objects such as floorboards and leaves, and rubbing with a stick of graphite. Through precise selection, combination, control of texture and some discreet additions, he was able to build up delicate, surprising images of fantasy landscapes, plants and creatures. He adapted this fundamentally simple technique to painting in the form of grattage, by which textures and patterns were made through simultaneously rubbing and scraping off layers of paint. Representational forms were then extracted from the whole by means of overpainting.
Decalcomania was another way of achieving similar results. Rich, unpredictable patterns were obtained by either taking an impression from, or sponging, layers of liquid paint: figurative motifs were then developed by overpainting. In Europe after the Rain the basic division of sky and earth was achieved by painting over the sky area entirely. The exposed sections of decalcomania have been patterned using different materials and worked up by hand to represent vegetation, rock and a number of encrusted, mutilated human forms. The idea behind the technique, using chance textures to suggest forms and images, is similar to that of his early collages. All of Ernst’s technical methods had the same goal of evading conventional expression of authorial intention. In his theoretical texts of the 1930s he equated these practices with the concept of ‘automatism’, which Breton had stated in 1924 to be the touchstone of Surrealism.
From Grove Art Online