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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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One of the key pioneers of the Dada movement, Max Ernst's aesthetic career spanned from poetry to sculpture, and from graphic art to painting.

Here, you can delve deeper into the world of Ernst and his art works, and learn about the techniques he used, his most famous paintings and they key periods into which his career is subdivided, his artistic influences and the artists he influenced in his turn, his milieu and also his role within the surrealist and German art movements.

Key Techniques used by Max Ernst

Ernst loved to experiment with artistic techniques relating to texture. Even when working with oil on canvas, pencil or pen and ink, it is clear that Ernst was also a sculptor with a keen feel for form and texture as he used collage (gluing different paper cutouts to the same page) and techniques that relate to physically manipulating the paper or canvas with foreign objects. Aside from classic painting, sculpture, drawing and collage, some of the main techniques that Ernst used in his work include frottage, grattage and decalcomania. Frottage comes from the French word for 'rubbing', and it was actually created by none other than Max Ernst himself in 1925.

Frottage involves laying a piece of paper over a textured surface and the rubbing over the paper with a graphite pencil. The lumps and bumps in the surface will cause regular and irregular patterns, and darker and lighter areas of graphite, on the paper. This effect can be seen in one of Ernst's most famous drawings, entitled The Entire City, which he created in 1934. Our understanding of Ernst's use of the technique of frottage will not be complete, however, until we understand its relation to the techniques he used in his writing. Ernst created several poems that were written in an 'automatic' style, where the poet imagines themselves to be a machine, writing down whatever words come to them without consciously directing the content of the poem.

Analogously, Ernst described frottage as an 'automatic' drawing technique as it creates patterns, layers, and shading by sheer virtue of the textured surface beneath the paper, without the artist consciously deciding which patterns and tones to make. Grattage, by contrast, involves the artist painting a canvas, then placing a textured object onto the surface of the paint before scraping the paint off. Ernst used some weird and wonderful objects to provide texture for his grattage based paintings. In one painting, entitled Forest and Dove, for instance, curators have speculated that Erst used the skeleton of a fish to add texture using a grattage technique. Grattage comes from the French word for 'scraping', and it was a very common Surrealist painting technique. Sometimes, Ernst would combine grattage and frottage.

He would first 'prepare' the surface of a piece of thin canvas or robust paper using grattage by scratching a design of his choice into it. Then, he would place the canvas or paper over an interestingly textured object before rubbing further colour onto the surface. The result would be a multi-texture palimpsest of colours, textures, shading and patterns. Finally, we come to the third innovative technique deployed by Ernst. This was decalcomania. There are actually two ways of understanding this technique. The first is in its traditional sense, and the second is in its more specific, Surrealist sense. Traditionally, decalcomania involved painting a design onto a piece of paper and then transferring the design from the paper to a piece of glass or porcelain by wrapping the paper around, or pressing it onto, a glass or porcelain surface.

When they appropriated the technique of decalcomania, however, Surrealists such as Max Ernst did it somewhat differently. Rather than transferring the design onto glass or porcelain, they simply used two pieces of paper. They would paint a design onto a piece of paper and the press it onto another piece of paper.

Ernst's Most Famous Paintings, and the Main Periods of his Career

Ernst's works are known world wide, however his most famous paintings are arguably the three works of Surrealism known as The Elephant Celebes, ‎The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Europe after Rain. Painted in Cologne in 1921, The Elephant Celebes is a highly Surrealist work that plays with form and perspective. It is unclear, for instance, whether the viewer is looking at the front or the back of the eponymous elephant. This painting was also the first of Ernst's large scale paintings, which, along with its striking subject matter, is a significant reason for its status as one of his most famous works of art.

This painting most probably began as a collage, which allowed Ernst to juxtapose bizarre and intriguing forms and designs. He then will have turned this collage into a painted work, which is why it has such a surreal sense of multiple different forms jammed together. The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a 1945 Surrealist painting that depicts the mythical temptation of the eponymous Saint Anthony by various horrific and supernatural beings. Though the imagined, carnivalesque animal(-like) forms in this work of art are depicted in a detailed and realistic style, their imaginative shapes and their ludicrous juxtaposition make this a definitively Surreal work of art.

Finally, Europe After Rain was painted in 1940-2, though it has its roots in a much earlier (1933) work, which was prompted by Hitler's rise to power. Using the texture related techniques described above, in this work of art Ernst imagined a new landscape for Europe - ravaged by war. In terms of artistic periods, Max Ernst's work moved through several different artistic styles throughout his life. One can see traces of each style in the others, and one can also see how sensitively Ernst responded to his influences throughout his life, adopting and adapting the styles of the different artists who influenced him.

Ernst's early works were Expressionist, reflecting his love for Van Gogh's work when he first started painting. His later works were Surrealist and Dadaist, and he went through definitive Surrealist and Dadaist periods in his career (with the two blurring into each other at various points) but he also painted works that were recognisably Cubist in style. Towards the end of his life, when he was living in the United States, Ernst began to branch out even further and he went through a late period of painting which was guided by his fascination with traditional Navajo art.

Famous Artists and Paintings that Influenced Max Ernst, and Artists that he Influenced

We have seen above that Ernst was initially influenced by Expressionist painters such as Vincent Van Gogh. But, who were his other influences? In the 1920s and 30s, Ernst was very much influenced by key European Surrealist figures, including Andre Breton (painter and author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto), Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. In his turn, Ernst influenced these painters - they were very much a community, a movement. His Surrealist influences can also be dated back over the centuries, however. In particular, his painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which was mentioned above, owes a tremendous debt to the medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch.

Ernst was also part of the Dada movement, and so he both influenced and was influenced by Dada artists such as Marcel Duchamp (creator of the famous 'urinal'). Ernst's later period, which was very much influenced by traditional First Nation art works, became an influence for the US artists known as the Abstract Expressionist. Perhaps the most famous Abstract Expressionist painter is Jackson Pollock. Moving towards this more abstract type of artistic expression was not a huge shift for Ernst. Many of his pencil drawings are highly abstract, and he also produced numerous Cubist works. One might say, then, that the way in which his career culminated - in abstraction - was part of his natural progression as an artist, as well as a testament to his versatility.

Family Life and Friends

It is clear that many members of Ernst's milieu were fellow Dada and Surrealist artists. He was instrumental in the staging of shocking and provocative Dada exhibitions, for instance. Moreover, Ernst was particularly closely tied to Paul Eluard (a poet, who was one of the founders of Surrealism as a movement), and lived with Eluard and his wife for a time in a menage a trois. However, the almost baroque style of Ernst's paintings can be traced in part back to the fact that his cultural circle contained a real medley of influences. His parents were strict Catholics, for instance, and so his early years were dominated by Christian theology. Perhaps we can trace these influences in works such as The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

One of Ernst's most important friendships, though, was with the sculptor Jean (or Hans) Arp (Arp had both French and German heritage and referred to himself as 'Hans' if he was speaking in German and as 'Jean' if he was speaking in French). Like Ernst, as well as being a sculptor Arp made collages, and he particularly liked to make collages with torn paper. The friendship between Arp and Ernst lasted for over half a century. Throughout his life, moreover, Ernst had numerous friends, lovers and companions, including the world famous writer Leonora Carrington. It is important to note that Ernst's son, Jimmy Ernst (who was a US citizen, though he was born in Cologne before Max Ernst emigrated to the US having escaped the Gestapo) was also a painter.

Jimmy Ernst was an abstract painter, and part of a group of Abstract painters in the US who were often known for their protests against the traditional art world and for their provocative works of art. In short, it is very difficult to extricate Ernst's circles of friendship and his artistic influences. For Ernst, his art and his life were very much intertwined. He sought out friendships and relationships with other artists and writers of the day who had a similar worldview to his own. For instance, his friendship with Paul Eluard was not just a superficial social affair but one that profoundly affected the Surrealist works of both men.

Ernst's Role within the Surrealist and German Art Movements

Ernst's role within both the Surrealist and the overall German art movements cannot be overestimated. As we have, seen, he remains one of the foremost Surrealist figures in the art world. Equally, he was a central member of the Dadaist movement, organising exhibitions and events that took the art world by storm and often caused great upset. For example, one exhibition that Ernst helped to stage involved a young girl reading obscene poetry. This was the first thing that visitors were greeted with when they walked in to the exhibition. This example has been chosen because it demonstrates how much of a stir Erst and his collaborators caused on the contemporary European art scene.

As a Surrealist, Ernst produced many works of art that can be considered to be textbook examples of the genre. One of the artworks discussed on this page, for instance, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, has all of the hallmarks of a classic Surrealist opus, and it is very much redolent of the work of Salvador Dali. The fantastical forms of the tempting figures, depicted in minute detail, and the vivid and oneiric quality of the entire painting, place this work of art right at the centre of the surrealist movement in Europe at the time. In terms of Ernst's role in the Surrealist movement, then, it was most definitely a central one. Art historians tend to say the same of his role in contemporary Dadaism on the continent (though it is Surrealism for which Ernst is best known, perhaps, and this is also arguably the genre of art within which he made the biggest impact).

In terms of German art movements other than Dadaism and Surrealism, it is safe to say that Ernst also made a noticeable contribution to Cubism, and he can also be described as a peripheral figure on the Cubist scene. Finally, when we consider the important role that Ernst had in both the Surrealist and the Dadaist and Cubist movements, it is also crucial to recognise that Ernst later became a key figure in the Abstract art movements in the United States. As we have seen, this work was carried on not only by Ernst's own son Jimmy but also by later American art movements, and in particular the Abstract Expressionists. Max Ernst's role was not limited to Europe, therefore. He also made an impact on the US art scene, and his detailed, Surrealist works can be appreciated and emulated by artists world wide, as can his more abstract and Cubist creations.