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Max Ernst was the main instigator of the 'Dada' school of art which is synonymous with a style that developed in Europe in the 20th century and rejected the logic and reason that was paramount in capitalist society.
The objective of these avant-garde artists was to portray a sense of irrationality and nonsense in their work, often as a protest against the horrors of war, materialism and other aspects of life prevalent in that era. Ernst also had a keen interest in the psychoanalytic theories of the day, such as those expounded by Sigmund Freud, and this is evident in his artwork Pieta or Revolution by Night.
In the painting the artist depicts himself being held by his father in an image reminiscent of Mary holding the body of Jesus (or Pieta.) This can be interpreted as signifying the troubled relationship between the artist and his father who was extremely religious. This staunch Catholic upbringing caused Ernst to rebel against the strictures of the Church and other oppressive elements in society from an early age.
In the Pieta or Revolution by Night, Ernst uses expressionless masks for the faces of the two main figures which make them look like statues or sleepwalkers. Another image in the background shows a man with a bandaged head ascending a staircase. Although it is not clear who the figure is meant to represent, it has been suggested that this could be the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who sustained a head wound in the first world war, or perhaps even Sigmund Freud.
Although Max Ernst had no formal training in art, he adopted an experimental approach to painting that culminated in the beginnings of the 'Dada' art revolution. Ernst also invented other techniques - grattage and frottage - which used paint and pencils to reveal objects underneath canvas or paper. Ernst had an early interest in sketching and painting and influences included works by Van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin which he first saw at an exhibition in Cologne. Ernst was drafted to the Western and Eastern fronts in World War 1 and saw others injured and killed which had a devastating effect on the artist as on many of his contemporaries.
This can often be seen in his other artwork including pieces which show machinery or weaponry with ridiculous additions and appendages in an attempt to diffuse the horror of the object. The Pietà or Revolution by Night, is typical of the Freudian influence in the works of Ernst, and also shows another indicator of the war that had impressed itself so deeply on the psyche of the artist and other writers, painters and poets of his generation.