Max Ernst (2 April 1891 – 1 April 1976) was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst is considered to have been one of the primary pioneers of Dadaism and Surrealism. He was associated with the Cologne Dada group and later the Paris Surrealist group, and his work frequently evoked the dreamlike imagery of surrealism and are characterized by an innovative use of collage.
Ernst was born in Brühl, near Cologne, the third of nine children of a middle-class Catholic family. His father Philipp was a teacher of the deaf and an amateur painter, a devout Christian and a strict disciplinarian. Ernst’s mother, née Maria Magdalena Kuelp, was a devout Catholic. While his early artistic talents were evident, Max Ernst was not initially interested in art, preferring instead to focus on sports. However, as a teenager he began to frequent the local art museum and after seeing an exhibition of work by Georges Seurat he was inspired to start painting.
After completing his high school education, Ernst enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1909 to study philosophy, but he quickly lost interest in academic life and left the university the following year. He returned home to Brühl, where he lived with his parents for several months before moving to Cologne in 1910. He took odd jobs and participated in expatriate artistic circles, becoming friends with Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, and signs of other future luminaries of the avant-garde.
In 1912, Ernst visited Paris for the first time, accompanied by his cousin Louise. The trip had a profound effect on him, as he later recalled:
“For the first time I saw pictures which were not intended to reproduce an appearance but which had been created from inner necessity, from the compulsion to express an idea. A new era began for me.”
Ernst was deeply impressed by what he saw, and within a few months he had made the decision to become a professional artist.
In 1914, Ernst met Hans Arp in Cologne. The two became close friends and would remain so for the rest of their lives. Ernst also befriended Johannes Baargeld, with whom he would co-found the Dada group.
When World War I broke out, Ernst was living in Berlin and was drafted into the German army. He was sent to the front in Belgium, where he served as a guard at a prisoner-of-war camp. He later claimed that the experience had a profound effect on him, giving him his first taste of the madness and brutality of war.
In 1916, Ernst was wounded in the head by shrapnel and was sent to a military hospital in Berlin. While recuperating, he began having hallucinations, which he later said were the first signs of his “psychotic sense of reality.”
In 1917, Ernst returned to the front, where he was captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war until 1918. He was then released and returned to Germany, where he resumed his artistic career.
In 1919, Ernst and Arp founded the Dada group in Cologne. The group was short-lived, but it had a profound effect on Ernst’s work. He began experimenting with collage, using found objects to create ” assemblages.” He also started to explore other techniques, such as frottage (rubbing objects to create textures) and grattage (scraping paint off canvas).
In 1922, Ernst moved to Paris, where he became associated with the Surrealist group. He developed a close friendship with Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and participated in several of the group’s activities, including the famous “exquisite corpse” game.
In 1924, Ernst married the German art student Luise Straus. The couple had a son, whom they named Pierre.
In 1925, Ernst and his family moved to Arp’s house in Meudon, just outside of Paris. The same year, he had his first solo show at the Galerie Simon in Paris, which was well-received by the critics.
In 1926, Ernst and Straus divorced. The following year, he married the French artist Marie-Berthe Aurenche. The couple had a son, who they named Jimmy.
In 1929, Ernst and Aurenche divorced. Ernst then began a relationship with the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim, who would become one of his most important patrons.
In 1938, Ernst left Europe for the United States, where he settled in New York City. He quickly became associated with the American Surrealists, who were heavily influenced by his work.
In 1941, Ernst had his first solo show in America at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The show was a huge success, and Ernst became one of the most celebrated artists in the United States.
In 1942, Ernst and Guggenheim divorced. The following year, he married the American artist Dorothea Tanning. The couple would remain together until Ernst’s death in 1976.
In the late 1940s, Ernst began to experiment with ” automatism,” a technique in which the artist allows the unconscious mind to guide the hand. This resulted in a series of ” Surrealist” paintings, which are some of his most famous works.
In the 1950s, Ernst became interested in ” decalcomania,” a technique in which paint is transferred from one surface to another. He used this technique to create a series of ” Double-sided” paintings, which are now considered some of his finest works.
In the 1960s, Ernst began to experiment with ” frottage,” a technique in which textures are created by rubbing objects against paper or canvas. This resulted in a series of ” Frottages,” which are considered some of his most beautiful works.
In the 1970s, Ernst suffered from declining health and began to withdraw from the art world. He died in 1976 at the age of eighty-two.
Ernst was a groundbreaking artist who helped to shape the course of modern art. His unique approach to painting, sculpture, and film influenced generations of artists and continues to inspire people today.