German-born Max Ernst was a member of the Dada movement (an avant-garde art movement) and a founder of Surrealism. Many of his paintings are the result of his experiences during World War II and in the style of Surrealism that he adopted from French influences. He is known for his fantastic and mystical images, consisting of unearthly landscapes, imaginary animals and bird-like creatures. His innovative talent helped shape the course of 20th century art.
Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891 in a small Rhineland town called Brühl, Germany, to Philipp Ernst and Luise née Kopp. His father, a devout Roman Catholic, was an amateur painter who taught at a school for deaf-mutes. In 1910, Ernst enrolled in the University of Bonn to study philosophy, literature, art history, psychology and psychiatry. He met Luise Starus, an art history student, and married her in 1918. Their son Jimmy was born two years later.
After serving in the First World War, in the year 1919, Ernst and Johannes T. Baargeld founded the Cologne Dadaist group. Ernst had been experimenting with mixed media at this time to create his first paintings, block prints and collages. In 1922, he and some friends moved to Paris, an event that inspired the painting ‘A reunion of friends’.
In 1924, Ernst actively participated in founding the Surrealist movement and wrote the first Surrealist manifesto. By using non-traditional methods, he created “frottage”, a graphic art technique that used pencil rubbings of objects to create works of art. He exhibited this new technique at the first Surrealist exhibition in Paris that same year. Frottage soon gave birth to another new technique, “grattage” (scraping textures into the surfaces of paintings).
No stranger to controversy, Ernst painted ‘The Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter’ (1926), which caused a scandal because of its portrayal of the Virgin Mary spanking baby Jesus. Today, it is among the icons of Surrealism.
In 1927, he divorced his first wife and married Marie-Berthe Aurenche. She inspired eroticism in some of his paintings from this period, including ‘Loplop Paradise’ (1931). Loplop was a bird he created from his imagination, and of which he often referred to as an extension of himself. It was portrayed in many of his paintings.
Max Ernst was arrested twice during the Second World War: once by the French authorities when he was regarded as a ‘hostile alien’, and again during the Nazi occupation of France by the Gestapo. Paul Éluard managed to get him released the first time, and with the help of American journalist Varian Fry and Peggy Guggenheim (sponsor of the arts), he managed to escape the country and flee to the United States. He continued to work and contributed in the development of Abstract Expressionism.
In 1941, Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim a year after arriving in the United States. He reunited with his son Jimmy and lived alongside other artists (Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall) and made friends with those who had found a new life in New York City. However, just like his other relationships, his marriage to Peggy deteriorated. Before long, he married again in Beverly Hills, California, in October 1946, to Dorothea Tanning. Some of the paintings from this period include ‘Europe after the Rain II’, ‘Day and Night’ and ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’.
Ernst remained in the United States until the early ‘60s, and lived in Sedona, Arizona, where he wrote the treatise ‘Beyond Painting’ (1948). The popular sculpture ‘Capricorne’, cast in concrete, was created during this time and erected in front of his house.
Max Ernst finally received the recognition he deserved when, in 1954, he won the Venice Biennale. In 1963, he and his wife moved to a small town in southern France, where he continued to work designing stage sets. He also designed a fountain for the city of Ambois. In 1975, a retrospective of his works was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
On April 1, 1976, Max Ernst died in Paris, France, a day before his eighty-fifth birthday. He was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.