Described as "one of the leading surrealists" by the world renowned Tate gallery in London, which houses much of his work, Max Ernst remains one of the world's most important and influential artists. He and his colleagues founded one of modern art's earliest but most significant movements called Dada, which was a reaction against formal traditions in art and a celebration of avant-garde creativity.
Ernst is perhaps best known for his legacy of paintings, but Ernst also created a vast body of sculpture and prints, and also wrote surrealist books. Max Ernst is important not only because of his prowess on the canvas, but also because his work reflects the modern psyche, disturbed by human mental and spiritual evolution and curious about what motivates and drives people. Sexuality, death, and desire are common themes in the work of Ernst and his fellow surrealists.
Ernst worked during a time in which there was increasing interest in human psychology and the deep recesses of the mind. Fellow German researcher Sigmund Freud had published his groundbreaking books about the unconscious mind, and likewise Carl Jung was changing the way people thought about myths, dreams, and symbols. Surrealist artists like Max Ernst capitalized on the growing interest in the human subconscious and unconscious to create dreamlike tableaus in the world of art. Therefore, Max Ernst's contributions to the world are to make dreams a visual reality.
Ernst did not work in isolation; in fact, his presence on the art scene was amid a cadre of like-minded artists also interested in surrealist expressions. The goal of the movement was to express the nature and symbolism of dreams for conscious examination. However, surrealism and Dada were also movements that had a strong political dimension. In particular, these art forms were direct responses to the brutalities that occurred during World War One, which was supposed to be the "war to end all wars," but which only presaged future violence and greater brutality. Advancements in technology and military capability made war potentially devoid of heroism or glory, and art was being used increasingly as a means of commenting on the social, political, and economic realities in Europe during the early 20th century. Ernst in particular returned from the war "disillusioned and dispossessed" (Ernst xiv).
Prior to the advent of Dada and surrealism, the most avant-garde art in the most avant-garde corners of Paris rarely made forays into the criticism of foreign policy. Impressionism, for example, challenged the notion of realism and artistic representation. There were some controversial themes in Impressionism, Cubism, Post Impressionism, and other art forms, but Dada and surrealism became the most saturated with political commentary and also insight into the human consciousness. The surrealists returned from the war and wanted to "turn the world upside down," (Ernst xiv).
One of the foremost surrealists who Ernst worked with regularly was Marcel Duchamp. Hopkins claims that Duchamp and Ernst were engaged in continual "dialogue" about art and specific themes of interest to them (95). One of these themes was the symbol of the bride, which makes its way cleverly and diversely in many of Ernst's and Duchamp's paintings. The bride is represented in grotesque manners, to completely obscure traditional elements of patriarchal marriage. Instead of the old-fashioned representation of the bride and groom, the surrealists would draw on social criticism of patriarchy to reveal the darker sides of marriage including misogyny and sexism. The dual consciousness of brides is, for example, represented by a "half robotic head," (Hopkins 95). Warlick points out that the feminine image was "persistently embedded" in Ernst's work (136).
Besides Duchamp, Jean Arp would also become a "lifelong friend" of Max Ernst (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation SRGF 1). Arp and Johannes Theodor Baargeld would together with Ernst form the Dada movement, which was "short-lived" but powerfully influential on the future and evolution of modern art around the world (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation SGRF 1). Ernst would later collaborate with Joan Miro and Salvador Dali.
Introducing the Artist
Max Ernst was born in Bruhl, Germany on April 2, 1891. He was the third of nine children (Ernst). The introduction to his autobiography indicates that Ernst's father was a strict disciplinarian and devoutly religious, inspiring in young Max a need for rebellion and exploration of alternative ideas and modes of being (Ernst xvi). A disregard for authority and the established tenets of fundamentalist religion were personal influences on Ernst's career.
Ernst studied philosophy initially, at the University of Bonn in Germany. His pursuit of knowledge deepened to the burgeoning field of psychology. Ernst began to explore the artistic expressions of mentally ill patients (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation SRGF 1). His interaction with the patients and explorations of their artistic creations led Max Ernst inevitably down the path towards surrealism. Ernst became interested in the gamut of human experience, including the irregular manifestations of reality that both dreams and mental illness might inspire.
Technically, Ernst is a self-taught artist with no formal training. The Dada movement he would later establish with his colleagues was in fact a reaction against formality, and a promotion of art for art's sake. Initially, Ernst was influenced by the work of van Gogh, de Chirico and Macke but later developed techniques that were completely independent and unique (Alley 1). Ernst was a German artist first and foremost, developing Dada as a Cologne-based movement. It was not until Ernst exhibited in Paris in 1921, at the Galerie au Sans Pareil, that Ernst began to transition to working more in the City of Lights. Gradually, Ernst's influence would be felt on both sides of the Atlantic as the artist became integrated also with the avant-garde community in New York City.
The crux of Ernst's surrealism is "irrational combinations of imagery," (Alley 1). Surrealism necessarily relies on some elements from daily life, just as dreams will incorporate some familiar ideas like people, places, things, and animals. Yet these elements are reassembled and arranged in ways that are phantasmagoric and dreamlike. Surrealism is dream made real. One glance through the phantasmagoric sketches that accompany Max Ernst's novels like A Week of Kindness or the Seven Deadly Elements show that the artist can be considered one of the first real graphic novelists. His novels combine rich imagery with poetic and impactful text to leave an indelible mark on the mind of the reader. His paintings are perhaps even more disturbing than his books due to the addition of rich color and textural elements. One of the art techniques that Ernst came to develop and use extensively was a type of rubbing called frottage. Alley claims that frottage "provided him with a means of evoking hallucinatory visions," (1).
The work of Max Ernst is diverse, but has common elements and themes. Those elements and themes include references to Freudian psychoanalysis, including sexual and grotesque imagery as well as Jungian imagery related to universal myths and archetypes. Collage was a primary medium of the surrealists and it remains so today. Using collage, the artist can assemble otherwise disparate elements and reassemble them on any surface -- even a three dimensional surface or disorama. Using alternative means of image construction means that the surrealists were able to reflect dream realities, and discard the dry realism or representational art. At first, Ernst was inspired by de Chirico's "strange juxtaposition of objects," (Ernst xiv). Then, Ernst took de Chirico's ideas a step further by drawing his inspirations from oddities like nineteenth-century novels, mail-order catalogs, and scientific prints (Ernst xiv). "Proto-surrealist" works by Ernst heralded the movement (Ernst xv).
Ernst's work soon matured and blossomed. One distinctly subversive painting in Ernst's early career was "The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses." In this painting, Ernst creates what can be described as a "blasphemous narrative," one that takes the traditional Madonna and Child motif and turns it into a humanized, but challenging composition (Ernst xvi). The Madonna and even Jesus are no longer residing in a sacred dimension; instead they have been degraded and downgraded to reveal the futility of religious beliefs. Ernst's studies in philosophy and his religious upbringing convene in paintings like these, which are in fact rare from Ernst's portfolio as the artist was not overly concerned with religion. However, Ernst was able to capture the spirit of the existential philosophical movements sweeping across Germany in particular. The modern philosophers had long since abandoned the need for God, instead embracing human potential as the ideal goal for spiritual truth seeking. With paintings like "The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses," Ernst challenges the viewer to consider alternative means of acquiring spiritual and intellectual truth.
Some of Ernst's paintings are not as challenging as those that subvert one of Christianity's most sacred images. Many of Ernst's paintings include images of animals and human beings, although rendered in altogether alternative formats. There are women with two sets of breasts; hybrid animal-human creatures, and faceless entities creeping…