Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891 in Brühl, near Bonn. He was the third of nine children. His father was a teacher of the deaf-mute and an amateur painter who also portrayed his son Max as the Child Jesus. His father’s profession as well as the father’s approach to art strongly impacted on the work of Max Ernst. In 1910 Ernst enrolled at the University of Bonn to study Philosophy, Psychology, and Art History. In 1912, inspired by his encounter with August Macke, Ernst started painting as an autodidact, drawing on Expressionism. In Cologne he saw works by Cézanne, Picasso, Munch, and van Gogh, and there he could show his own works already in 1912.
Ernst met Hans Arp in 1913, and a lifelong friendship developed. In August 1914 the artist was drafted into the German army and survived World War I. During these years he also met Berlin Dadaists Georg Grosz and Wieland Herfelde. Together with Johannes Baargeld and Hans Arp, he founded the Cologne Dada group »Zentrale W/3« in 1919. By then Ernst had created an Alter Ego named Dadamax. Also in 1919, Ernst discovered Giorgio de Chirico’s Pittura metafisica (Metaphysical Painting). His Dadaism therefore also contained a surrealist aspect manifested in his strange collages that combined supposed facts of technology, nature, or science into nonsense statements. Ernst took the material for his collages not only from daily newspapers, flyers, and magazines, he also went through sales catalogues of all kinds, textbooks, and illustrated kitsch novels.
In 1921, upon an invitation by André Breton, Ernst exhibited his work for the first time in Paris. In 1922 he moved there and then lived with Gala and Paul Eluard in Saint-Brice in a menage à trois. They stayed in a house for which Ernst created wall paintings that formed a hermetic cycle as to their form and content and showed the artist’s involvement with Surrealism. Continuing to work with collages, Ernst developed entirely new painting procedures in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, that subversively reflect the levels of representation. Through frottage, the abrasion of a structured object placed underneath the sheet, Ernst achieved quasi-natural, biomorphic forms that had nevertheless been mechanically produced. He accentuated these forms through his compositions. In his Histoire naturelle / Natural History from 1926, Ernst documented this graphical automatization of the drawing process with 34 collaged sheets. With his gratings he then transferred the frottages into the realm of painting. Two thinly liquid, superimposed color layers were scraped and scratched, with pressure applied on the objects that had been placed underneath and that provided a structure. Again a new mechanically produced pattern of color and form emerged that Ernst mostly interpreted in terms of natural space and landscape. As somebody who loved C. D. Friedrich’s wide, empty landscapes without humans, Ernst created his own proliferating nature islands that appeared like an ontological rewriting of Arnold Böcklin’s islands of the dead.
With the decalcomany, where two thinly liquid color layers were offset against each other with a glass plate or a smooth piece of cardboard, Ernst again achieved automated color patterns. He combined the decalcomanies with imprint procedures, pressing string, cord, or fabric into the wet layer of color, allowing a kind of negative, tracelike Trompe l’oeil to emerge. Finally Ernst experimented with canvases placed on the floor, over which he swung cans on strings. Through a hole, paint would drip on the canvas. In order to influence the coloration, he sometimes smoked (»Fumage«) his color surfaces. His representational aim, entirely in accord with the propositions of Surrealism, was always directed towards a formal insight into the unconscious, the pre-individual, and the instinct-driven. Beyond painting, Ernst also devoted himself to sculpture, starting in 1929/30. Meanwhile Dadamax had turned into Lop Lop. This hybrid birdman creature became, in painting and sculpture, the Alter Ego of Max Ernst, the Surrealist. A man of many talents, Ernst published his collage novel La femme 100 têtes in 1929 and played the robber chief in Luis Buñuel’s film »L’Age d’Or« in 1930. In 1931 he showed his work for the first time in New York and participated in the exhibition »Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism« in 1936. Supported by Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst emigrated to the U.S. in 1941, after having been detained several times in France. In the U.S., Ernst focused on the sculptures and masks of the Native American Hopi people, and his landscape compositions were influenced by the Arizona desert.
In 1953 Ernst returned to Europe and settled in France. During his lifetime, he participated in the Documenta several times (1954, 1959, 1964). Large retrospectives were dedicated to his work in the U.S. In 1963 Peter Schamoni made the film »Max Ernst – Entdeckungsfahrten ins Unbewußte« / »Max Ernst – Expeditions into the Unconscious.« In 1971 his hometown Brühl honored him with a Max Ernst Fountain. In 1975 Ernst travelled to the opening of his exhibition at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, and during the same year he had a large retrospective in Paris.
On April 1, 1976, one day before his 85th birthday, Max Ernst died in Paris.
Parkinson, G.: Surrealism, Art and Modern Science. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Epistemology, New Haven 2008
Pech, J.: Max Klinger, Max Ernst und die Prismatisierung der Wahrnehmung, in: Liebe: Max Klinger und die Folgen, Ausst.-Kat. Museum der Künste, Leipzig, hg. v. Schmidt, H.W., Bielefeld 2007
Spies, W. (Hg.): Max Ernst: im Garten der Nymphe Ancolie, Ostfildern-Ruit 2007
Hille, K.: Gefährliche Musen: Frauen um Max Ernst, Berlin 2007
In Augenhöhe: Paul Klee, frühe Werke im Blick auf Max Ernst, Ausst.-Kat. Max Ernst Museum, Brühl, hg. von Sommer, A., Köln 2006
Kavky, S.: Authorship and Identity in Max Ernst’s Loplop, in: Art History, 28, 2005
Max Ernst. A Retrospective: Ausst.-Kat. Metropolitan Museum of Art N.Y., hg. v. W. Spies, S. Rewald, New Haven 2005
Spies, W. (Hg.): Max Ernst. Leben und Werk, Köln 2005
Spies, W.: Max Ernst, Oeuvre Katalog, 6 Bde., Köln 1999