Today is the birthday (1891) of Max Ernst, a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet who was a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism. Ernst was born in Brühl, near Cologne, the third of nine children of a middle-class Catholic family. His father Philipp was a teacher of the deaf and an amateur painter. In 1909 Ernst enrolled at the University of Bonn to read philosophy, art history, literature, psychology and psychiatry. He visited asylums and became fascinated with the art work of the patients. He also started painting that year, producing sketches in the garden of the Brühl castle, and portraits of his sister and himself. In 1911 Ernst befriended August Macke and joined his Die Rheinischen Expressionisten group of artists, deciding to become an artist.
In 1912 he visited the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, where works by Pablo Picasso and post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin profoundly influenced him. His work was exhibited that year together with that of the Das Junge Rheinland group, at Galerie Feldman in Cologne, and then in several group exhibitions in 1913. In his paintings of this period, Ernst adopted an ironic style that juxtaposed grotesque elements alongside Cubist and Expressionist motifs.
In 1914 Ernst met Hans Arp in Cologne. The two became friends and their relationship lasted for fifty years. After Ernst completed his studies in the summer, his life was interrupted by World War I. Ernst was drafted and served both on the Western Front and the Eastern Fronts. The effect of the war on Ernst was devastating; in his autobiography, he wrote of his time in the army thus: “On the first of August 1914 M.E. died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918”. For a brief period on the Western Front, Ernst was assigned to chart maps, which allowed him to continue painting.
In 1918, Ernst was demobilized and returned to Cologne. He soon married art history student Luise Straus, whom he had met in 1914. In 1919, Ernst visited Paul Klee in Munich and studied paintings by Giorgio de Chirico. The same year, inspired by de Chirico and mail-order catalogues, teaching-aide manuals and similar sources, he produced his first collages (notably Fiat modes, a portfolio of lithographs), a technique which would dominate his arts. Also in 1919, Ernst, social activist Johannes Theodor Baargeld and several colleagues founded the Cologne Dada group. In 1919–20 Ernst and Baargeld published various short-lived magazines such as Der Strom, and Die Schammade, and organized Dada exhibitions.
Ernst and Luise’s son Ulrich ‘Jimmy’ Ernst was born on 24th June 1920; he also became a painter. Ernst’s marriage to Luise was short-lived. In 1921 he met Paul Éluard, who became a lifelong friend. Éluard bought two of Ernst’s paintings (Celebes and Oedipus Rex) and selected six collages to illustrate his poetry collection Répétitions. A year later the two collaborated on Les malheurs des immortels and then with André Breton, whom Ernst met in 1921, on the magazine Littérature. In 1922, unable to secure the necessary papers, Ernst entered France illegally and settled into a ménage à trois with Éluard and his wife Gala in Paris suburb Saint-Brice, leaving behind his wife and son. During his first two years in Paris, Ernst took various odd jobs to make a living and continued to paint. In 1923 the Éluards moved to a new home in Eaubonne, near Paris, where Ernst painted numerous murals. The same year his works were exhibited at Salon des Indépendants.
Although apparently accepting the ménage à trois, Éluard eventually left, first for Monaco and then for Saigon. He soon asked his wife and Max Ernst to join him; both had to sell paintings to finance the trip. Ernst went to Düsseldorf and sold a large number of his works to a long-time friend, Johanna Ey, owner of gallery Das Junge Rheinland. After a brief time together in Saigon, the trio decided that Gala would remain with Éluard. The Éluards returned to Eaubonne in early September, while Ernst followed them some months later, after exploring more of South-East Asia. He returned to Paris in late 1924 and soon signed a contract with Jacques Viot that allowed him to paint full-time. In 1925 Ernst established a studio at 22, rue Tourlaque.
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. The next year he collaborated with Joan Miró on designs for Sergei Diaghilev. With Miró’s help, Ernst developed grattage, in which he troweled pigment from his canvases. He also explored with the technique of decalcomania, which involves pressing paint between two surfaces.
In 1927, Ernst married Marie-Berthe Aurenche. Ernst appeared in the 1930 film L’Âge d’Or, directed by the Surrealist Luis Buñuel. Ernst began to sculpt in 1934 and spent time with Alberto Giacometti. 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. He had been living with his lover and fellow surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington who, not knowing whether he would return, saw no option but to sell their house to repay their debts and leave for Spain. Thanks to the intercession of Paul Éluard 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 the US with the help of Peggy Guggenheim and Fry. Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim arrived in the United States in 1941 and were married at the end of the 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 made their home in Sedona, Arizona from 1946 to 1953, where the high desert landscapes inspired them and recalled Ernst’s earlier imagery. Despite the fact that Sedona was remote and populated by fewer than 400 ranchers, orchard workers, merchants and small Native American communities, their presence helped begin what would become an American artists’ colony. Among the monumental red rocks, Ernst built a small cottage by hand on Brewer Road and he and Tanning hosted intellectuals and European artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Yves Tanguy. Sedona proved an inspiration for the artists and for Ernst, who compiled his book Beyond Painting and completed his sculptural masterpiece Capricorn while living there.
As a result of the book and its publicity, Ernst began to achieve financial success. From the 1950s he lived mainly in France. In 1954 he was awarded the Grand Prize for painting at the Venice Biennale. He died at the age of 84 on 1st April 1976 (one day before his birthday) in Paris and was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Here are three Dadaist recipes from Man Ray:
Le Petit Dejeuner. Take a wooden panel of an inch or less thickness, 16 to 20 inches in size. Gather the brightly colored wooden blocks left by children on the floors of playrooms and paste or screw them on the panel.
Déjeuner. Take the olives and juice from one large jar of prepared green or black olives and throw them away. In the empty jar place several steel ball bearings. Fill the jar with machine oil to prevent rusting. With this delicacy serve a loaf of French bread, 30 inches in length, painted a pale blue.
Dîner. Gather wooden darning eggs, one per person. If the variety without handles cannot be found, remove the handles. Pierce lengthwise so that skewers can be inserted in each darning egg. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane.
Yum — bon appétit