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Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst was a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism.
Constantly experimenting, in 1925 Ernst invented a graphic art technique called frottage, which uses pencil rubbings of objects as a source of images. He also created the ‘grattage’ technique, in which paint is scraped across canvas to reveal the imprints of the objects placed beneath. He used this technique in his famous painting Forest and Dove (as shown at the Tate Modern).
He collaborated with Joan Miro on designs for Sergei Diaghilev. With Miro’s help, Ernst pioneered grattage, in which he troweled pigment from his canvases. He also explored with the technique of decalcomania, which involves pressing paint between two surfaces.
Ernst drew a great deal of controversy with his 1926 painting The Virgin Chastises the infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter.
Ernst appeared in the 1930 film L’Age d’Or, directed by self-identifying Surrealist Luis Bunuel. Ernst began to make sculpture in 1934, and spent time with Alberto Giacometti. In 1938, the American heiress and artistic patron Peggy Guggenheim acquired a number of Max Ernst’s works, which she displayed in her new museum in London.
In September 1939, the outbreak of World War II caused Ernst to be interned as an “undesirable foreigner” in Camp des Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, along with fellow surrealist, Hans Bellmer, who had recently emigrated to Paris. Thanks to the intercession of Paul Eluard and other friends, including the journalist Varian Fry, he was released a few weeks later. Soon after the German occupation of France, he was arrested again, this time by the Gestapo, but managed to escape and flee to America with the help of Guggenheim and Fry. He left behind his lover, Leonora Carrington, and she suffered a major mental breakdown. Ernst and Guggenheim arrived in the United States in 1941 and were married the following year. Along with other artists and friends (Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall) who had fled from the war and lived in New York City, Ernst helped inspire the development of Abstract expressionism.
His marriage to Guggenheim did not last, and in Beverly Hills, California in October 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet P. Browner, he married Dorothea Tanning. The couple first made their home in Sedona, Arizona. In 1948 Ernst wrote the treatise Beyond Painting. As a result of the publicity, he began to achieve financial success.
In 1953 he and Tanning moved to a small town in the south of France where he continued to work. The City, and the Galeries Nationales du Grand-Palais in Paris published a complete catalogue of his works. In 1966 he created a chess set made of glass which he named “Immortel”; it has been described by the poet Andre Verdet as “a masterpiece of bewitching magic, worthy of a Maya palace or the residence of a Pharaoh”.
At the age of 84 Ernst died on 1 April 1976 in Paris. He was interred at Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
Max Ernst achieved a rare feat in the life of an artist, which is to establish a glowing reputation and critical following in three countries (Germany, France, and the United States) in the span of his career. Although Ernst is an artist who is better known by art historians and academics than by the general public today, his influence in shaping the direction of mid-century American art (particularly Abstract Expressionism) is easily recognizable. He had a particularly strong influence on Abstract Expressionismist, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, to name a few.
Max Ernst’s arrival in New York during World War II (1941), along with other European avant-garde painters such as Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian electrified a generation of American artists. Ernst’s rejection of traditional painting, in favor of his own unique techniques (collage, frottage, grattage) captivated young American painters, who similarly sought to forge a fresh and unorthodox approach to painting.