Max Ernst: Self-Portrait. 1909

Max Ernst was a German-born Surrealist who helped shape the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in America post-World War II. Armed with an academic understanding of Freud, Ernst often turned to his work-whether sculpture, painting, or collage-as a means of processing his experience in World War I and unpacking his feelings of dispossession in its wake.

Max Ernst was born into a middle-class family of nine children on April 2, 1891 in Brühl, Germany, near Cologne. Ernst first learned painting from his father, a teacher with an avid interest in academic painting. Other than this introduction to amateur painting at home, Ernst never received any formal training in the arts and forged his own artistic techniques in a self-taught manner instead. After completing his studies in philosophy and psychology at the University of Bonn in 1914, Ernst spent four years in the German army, serving on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

The horrors of World War I had a profound and lasting impact on both the subject matter and visual texture of the burgeoning artist, who mined his personal experiences to depict absurd and apocalyptic scenes. This subversive tendency remained strong in Ernst throughout his career, as the world is literally turned upside down in many of his works. Returning to Germany after World War I, Ernst became a leader of the Dada movement in Cologne while maintaining close ties with the Parisian avant-garde. He began creating his first collages in 1919, reworking mundane materials such as manuals on botany to create stunning, fantastical images.

In 1922, Ernst left his first wife to flee to Paris, where he remained until 1941. In this time, Surrealism came to displace Dadaism with the publication of André Breton's "First Surrealist Manifesto" in 1924, and Ernst became one of the movement's founding members. He developed the technique of frottage (the French word for "rubbing"), laying paper on the floor and rubbing over it with pencil to create the textural effect of wood. This emphasis on the contact between materials, as well as transforming everyday materials to arrive at an image that signified some sort of collective consciousness, would become central to Surrealism's ideal of automatism. This idea that the random and free interaction between artist and material produces an image of the artist's subconscious and inner state proved vital to Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock.

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Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in 1948

War and Fascism followed Ernst to France, and he was sent to internment camps three times before escaping to the United States in 1941. Ernst found his third wife in Peggy Guggenheim, the flamboyant socialite and patron of the arts, who gave her husband prime access to the art scene of New York City. It was here that Ernst, along with a circle of European Surrealists, began to inspire the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in a concrete way. Not before long, Ernst moved to Sedona, Arizona with his fourth wife, the American painter Dorothea Tanning. Ernst and Tanning moved back to France in 1953, where Ernst worked until his death in Paris in 1976.


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