Max Ernst. The Hat Makes the Man (C'est le chapeau qui fait l'homme). 1920. Gouache, pencil, oil, and ink on cut-and-pasted printed paper on board, 13 7/8 x 17 3/4" (35.2 x 45.1 cm). Purchase. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

“I came to assist as spectator at the birth of all my works....”

Max Ernst

A key member of first Dada and then Surrealism in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s, Max Ernst used a variety of mediums—painting, collage, printmaking, sculpture, and various unconventional drawing methods—to give visual form to both personal memory and collective myth. By combining illusionistic technique with a cut-and-paste logic, he made the incredible believable, expressing disjunctions of the mind and shocks of societal upheavals with unsettling clarity.

After serving for four years in World War I, the German-born Ernst returned traumatized to Cologne (near his birthplace of Brühl) in 1918. It was there that he produced his first collages alongside fellow Dadaists Jean (Hans) Arp and Johannes Baargeld. In his works from this period, he used mechanically-reproduced fragments, such as the image of a chemical bomb being released from a military plane in the background of Here Everything is Still Floating, to reflect a world of rubble and shards.

Ernst is most closely associated with Surrealism, an artistic and literary movement in Paris in the 1920s that prized the irrational and the unconscious over order and reason. A key contribution to this movement was his invention of frottage, a technique of placing paper over a textured material, such as wood grain or metal mesh, and rubbing it with a pencil or crayon to achieve various effects. The Surrealists prized this practice—which produced compositions like Forest and Sun—for both the serendipity of the resulting imagery and the passivity it encouraged, bypassing the constraints of the artist’s rational mind. Having little control over the resulting patterns, Ernst marveled that he “came to assist as spectator at the birth of all my works.”1 Eventually, he translated the method from paper to painting, using the word grattage to describe this technique of scraping wet paint off of the canvas to achieve similar patterned effects.

The fragmented logic of collage, which Ernst referred to as “the culture of systematic displacement,” persists in his paintings, whose subjects are disjointed even if their surfaces are smooth. In these foreboding dreamscapes, headless bodies and body-less hands appear incongruously amid lush forests or on deserted beaches. In the years leading up to World War II, and during his time as an émigré to the United States from 1941 to 1953, Ernst made work that once again reflected the menacing atmosphere of war.

Samantha Friedman, Assistant Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016

  1. Ernst, “Beyond Painting,” in Max Ernst: Beyond Painting, And other Writings by the Artist and his Friends (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1948), p. 9.

Wikipedia entry
Max Ernst (2 April 1891 – 1 April 1976) was a German (naturalised American in 1948 and French in 1958) painter, sculptor, printmaker, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst was a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism in Europe. He had no formal artistic training, but his experimental attitude toward the making of art resulted in his invention of frottage—a technique that uses pencil rubbings of textured objects and relief surfaces to create images—and grattage, an analogous technique in which paint is scraped across canvas to reveal the imprints of the objects placed beneath. Ernst is noted for his unconventional drawing methods as well as for creating novels and pamphlets using the method of collages. He served as a soldier for four years during World War I, and this experience left him shocked, traumatised and critical of the modern world. During World War II he was designated an "undesirable foreigner" while living in France. Ernst was born in Brühl. He began painting in 1909 while studying at the University of Bonn, and later joined the Die Rheinischen Expressionisten group of artists. Ernst's work often featured ironic juxtapositions of grotesque elements with Cubist and Expressionist motifs. He had a fascination with birds, often including his alter ego, Loplop, a bird, in his work. He eventually settled in France and achieved financial success in the 1950s. He died in Paris on 1 April 1976.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Max Ernst was one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the Dada movement in Cologne, and later was closely associated with Surrealism. Ernst's Surrealist paintings are steeped in Freudian metaphor, private mythology, and childhood memories. One of his major themes centered on the image of the bird, which often incorporated human elements. He embraced the use of collage, frottage, and decalcomania in his diverse works, and published a series of purely pictorial novels created from collaged found images.
German, American, Austrian, French
Artist, Author, Engraver, Etcher, Lithographer, Collagist, Genre Artist, Graphic Artist, Illustrator, Painter, Owner, Sculptor
Max Ernst, Maximilian Ernst, Ernest, Ernst
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


235 works online



  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 256 pages
  • Max Ernst Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, pages

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