Ernst, Max (1891–1976) By Rex, Bethany
Max Ernst was a painter, sculptor and printmaker. He was born in Germany, but he lived in Paris and then New York; he returned to France in the 1960s. An encounter with Ernst’s work reveals an unconventional frame of reference marked by a ceaseless search for new forms of expression — forms capable of responding to an era of fragmentation and a loss of faith in the Enlightenment ideals of reason and progress. Ernst was an early leader of Dadaism in Cologne and a central member of the surrealist movement. Indeed, his work is full of intentional contradictions and red herrings, yet it is possible to detect technical and thematic foci throughout his oeuvre: birds, forests, petrified cities and the natural sciences. In order to give form to the visions of his unconscious mind, Ernst developed a number of semi-automatic methods of creation: ‘grattage’ (scraping paint from the canvas); ‘frottage’ (taking rubbings); ‘decalcomania’ (a form of image transfer); and ‘oscillation’ (swinging a pierced paint can so as to drip paint on the canvas). His approach was partly derived from Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) psychoanalytic theories, an influence shared by the surrealists Paul Éluard (1895–1952) and André Breton (1896–1966). Taking war as his primordial experience, Ernst wrestled with multiple forms of expression to produce an extensive and enigmatic body of work that limns the experience of living in a period of bewildering social and political upheaval.