Max Ernst

By John Guice

            Max Ernst was an artist whose wild and fanciful imagination inspired the works he created.  During his lifetime, Ernst created many works that served as inspiration for countless others.  He helped to define movements of art through works which sought to delve deep into a person’s psyche. These factors allowed Ernst to become one of the principle founders of the Surrealist and Dada movements.  While being a creative mind, Max Ernst was also a very smart man who delved into philosophy and the emerging realm of psychiatry.  Max Ernst drew upon his life and imagination to create works that speak to the inner voices of his viewers.

Max Ernst was born on April 1, 1891 in Bruhls, Germany.[1] Ernst was the second of nine children.  His father, Philipp Ernst, had a great effect on the young Max.  Philipp was a devout Christian school teacher who taught special needs children at the local school.  Philipp followed the late 19th century model for a school teacher and was a strict authoritarian. He also painted and sketched for a hobby which influenced the young Max in his later years.[2]  Philipp often painted nature scenes in traditional styles which harkened back to the early German masters.  This was a major influence on Max as he began to grow older and discover himself as an artist.

In 1909, Max Ernst enrolled at the University of Bonn.  He studied philosophy and became very interested in the new field of psychiatry.  One of the main influences upon Ernst during this time was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.[3]  Nietzsche believed that the conventions of society were constantly restraining mankind from releasing its natural state.  Ernst saw became inspired by this rationale and began to take interest in the art work of the mentally ill.   He believed that these works resembled an expression of the raw human mind.  Ernst wanted to become like the insane and escape the reality that he felt held back his ambitions as an artist. Surrealism’s obsession with the expression of the subconscious mind attracted Ernst after his involvement with Dada.

In 1914, things changed for Max Ernst when he became drafted by the German army to serve in World War I.  Ernst would spend time on both the Eastern and Western fronts of the war as a surveyor and map designer.[4]  Like many others who served in World War I, Max Ernst became traumatized by the terrible sights he witnessed during the war.  This can be expected due to the nature of how combat was waged.  It was a long and drawn out fight that was the cause of a great loss of life on the continent of Europe.  The devastation was so great that central Europe became a wasteland at major battle sites, and entire villages lost all of their men that were of fighting age.  Experiencing the devastation first hand led to Max Ernst stating in his own autobiography that “on the first of August 14 Max Ernst died.  He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918.”[5]   These events persuaded him to join the Dada movement after he returned to civilian life.

After being demobilized in 1918, Ernst returned to Cologne.  He married his first wife Luise Straus upon returning and had his first son with her.  This marriage would be short lived, and the two were divorced after a short period.  Ernst began to examine the works of Giorgio de Chirico, who painted in a metaphysical style.  De Chirico’s style drew upon traditional Italian themes, but he gave these subjects a menacing edge.  Some of these paintings featured classically styled town squares at sunsets.  That is where de Chirico leaves the traditional form and begins to add a nightmarish feel to the work that Ernst felt attached to.  The sharp lines of the buildings and ambiguous figures created an eerie tone that came to personify the painting. The works done by de Chirico led Ernst to begin producing his first Dada collages.

Like de Chirico, Ernst used readymade images to create his collages.  Examples of this technique are present in his work entitled Two Ambiguous Figures.[6]  Ernst used pieces of scientific catalogs as the base for his collages.  He would then paint over certain objects while leaving others exposed which gave the visual effect of abstract people or other animals. These works displayed the qualities of dream imagery that would come into full effect during the Surrealism movement.

During this time, he also began producing and organizing Dada magazines and events along with other colleagues.  One of the exhibitions Ernst assisted in presenting was the Brauhaus Winter[7]  This exhibition capitalized on the tolerance present in Cologne for modern art.  This is the city where Ernst had become a part of the Dada movement due to the lack of political tension present in both Zurich and Berlin.  Ernst and fellow designers wanted this exhibit to become not just an exhibition of art but to capture the brashness of Dada.   One example of this is a work completed by Ernst that featured a real axe integrated into the painting.   Ernst invited people of the audience to destroy the painting with the axe at the conclusion of the exhibition.  He wanted to make a statement that the art they created was meant to be an extreme awakening instead of a quiet revolution.  This was an important phase in the development of Ernst as a leader in the Dada movement.

Upon the collapse of Dada, Ernst began to transition into the emerging Surrealist movement.  This was a fluid transition due to his interests in the subject areas that Surrealism centered around.  Some of these ideas included the dream world and dream analysis techniques pioneered by Sigmund Freud.  Ernst had already studied the basics of psychiatry while in college at Cologne and had delved into the beginnings of psychoanalysis pioneered by Freud.  These interests along with the impact of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the subconscious human power brought Ernst over to Surrealism.  He felt that this new form of art would allow him to delve deeper into his own mind and express the raw creativity trapped inside.  This practice allowed for Ernst to come up with novel ways of presenting art and the subjects of paintings.

One novel way that Ernst developed to express art was through his alter-ego named Loplop.[8]   Loplop was a bird like humanoid that would often play the role as a presenter of another piece of work from either Ernst or a different artist.  The story of Loplop is that which involves Ernst as a child.  He had grown particularly close to their families pet cockatoo.  This bird happened to die on the same night as Ernst’s youngest sibling was born.[9]  Ernst associated this event as the reincarnation of the bird, and he became very close to this particular sister. This is why Loplop is often seen as a stand in for Ernst as a presenter during his Surrealist collages.

To express the subconscious, Ernst developed new painting techniques which focused on chance instead of pre-planning.  One such technique came to be known as frottage which used pencil rubbings of objects to produce a painting’s subjects.[10]  This would be performed in a random and uncontrolled fashion. Ernst would then take the textures that were generated and form images from them.  The painting entitled To 100,000 Doves is a popular work which utilizes this method.[11]  There is a ghostly quality to the image due to the rough textures of the wood rubbings.  This gives the painting an uncontrolled, dreamlike quality. The other technique Ernst develops is known as grattage which involves the irregular scraping of paint from the canvas with different tools.[12]  This created an uneven layering of paint which Ernst would then interpret and expound upon.  Ernst used these techniques to create bizarre landscapes and interesting characters that personify his works. These were only a few of the many contributions that Ernst provided to the Surrealist movement and future artists.

Max Ernst’s life was one that heavily influenced his works.  He developed techniques which pushed his own vibrant thoughts to areas that had been left previously untouched.  Ernst had always embraced his wild imagination and held onto the ideas of philosophers who believed that this quality should be emphasized throughout all of humanity.  It was easy then for Ernst to become part of the Dada and Surrealist movement due to the importance of the subconscious mind and creative elements that were allowed to be performed.  Here he developed many new techniques that explored the portrayal of the dream world.  Ernst was a great figure in art throughout his life because of his contributions.













Ernst, Max. Two Ambiguous Figures. Watercolor and ink, 1920. Michael and Judy

Steinhardt Collection, New York.


Ernst, Max. To 100,000 Doves. Oil on canvas. 1925.


Gimferrer, Pere. Max Ernst, Or the Dissolution of Identity. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 1977.


Russell, John. Max Ernst: Life and Work. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1967.


Hughes, Robert. 1976. “Max Ernst: The Compleat Experimenter.” Time 107, no. 15: 69. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost( accessed January 31,2012).


Bischoff, Ulrich. Max Ernst 1891-1976. Koln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmBH, 1994.

[1] Robert Hughes, “Max Ernst: The Compleat Experimenter,” Time 107, no. 15 (1976): 69.

[2] John Russell, Max Ernst: Life and Work (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1967), 12.

[3] John Russell, Max Ernst, 20.

[4] John Russell, Max Ernst, 32.

[5] John Russell, Max Ernst, 32.

[6] Max Ernst, Two Ambiguous Figures, watercolor and ink, 1920, Michael and Judy Steinhardt Collection, New York.

[7] John Russell, Max Ernst, 54.

[8] Ulfrich Bischoff, Max Ernst 1891-1976 (Koln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmBH), 47.

[9] John Russell, Max Ernst, 16.

[10].Pierre Gimferrer, Max Ernst, Or the Dissolution of Identity (Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 1920), 7.

[11] Max Ernst, To100,000 Doves, oil on canvas, 1925.

[12] Ulfrich Bischoff, Max Ernst 1891-1976, 40.

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