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Max Ernst


As you delve deeper into the life and work of Max Ernst, one of the most influential surrealist artists of the 20th century, you will encounter a creative mind that pushed the boundaries of self-expression. Ernst was a pioneer who helped develop surrealism as an artistic movement. His paintings, sculptures, and collages explored the terrain between the conscious and unconscious mind.

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Name: Max

Surname: Ernst

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Date of Death: 1976


Table of Contents

Table of Contents

As you delve deeper into the life and work of Max Ernst, one of the most influential surrealist artists of the 20th century, you will encounter a creative mind that pushed the boundaries of self-expression. Ernst was a pioneer who helped develop surrealism as an artistic movement. His paintings, sculptures, and collages explored the terrain between the conscious and unconscious mind.

Ernst led a life as tumultuous as the times he lived in. Born in Germany, he would later flee the Nazi regime, only to be imprisoned as an “undesirable alien” in France during World War II. These life-altering experiences shaped his perspective as an artist and added layers of meaning to his works. To understand Ernst’s inimitable style is to understand the artistic and political revolutions in Europe between world wars. 

Though he endured immense challenges and losses, Ernst maintained his vision and dedication to his craft until the end. His lasting legacy is a testament to the power of creative expression in the face of life’s most profound mysteries, conflicts and contradictions. Ernst’s life and work remind you of the human capacity to transform inner turmoil into visions of startling beauty.

This artist dared to unlock what had been suppressed, hidden or deemed nonsensical and bring those ideas to light. In doing so, Ernst expanded our view of what constitutes art and even reality. His life’s work invites you to open your mind to new possibilities of human creativity and expression. Delve in – the fantastical, absurdist world of Max Ernst awaits.


Max Ernst
Image Credit: The Collector

Early Life and Education: From Brühl to Bonn

As a young boy growing up in Brühl, Germany, Max Ernst showed an early interest in painting that was nurtured by his father, a strict disciplinarian who was also an amateur painter.

Ernst’s formal education began at the University of Bonn, where he studied philosophy and art history. Disillusioned with the rigidity of his coursework, Ernst started to rebel against traditional styles and subjects. He became fascinated with psychology, mysticism, and the subconscious.

In 1909 Ernst abandoned his studies and moved to Paris to become an artist. He associated with other avant-garde artists, such as Paul Klee, Jean Arp, and Giorgio de Chirico, also breaking from convention—their radical, absurd, and illogical work aimed to tap into the subconscious mind.

What is Max Ernst known for?

Max Ernst
Image Credit: MoMA

Max Ernst was a German artist who has excellent contributions to the Dada and Surrealist movements. He was known for his innovative and experimental techniques, including collage and frottage (rubbing). 

Ernst’s work often explored themes of dreamlike landscapes, mythology, and the subconscious mind. He created fantastical and often unsettling imagery that challenged traditional artistic conventions. 

Career highlights

Max Ernst
Image Credit: MoMA

What Did Max Ernst Invent?

Ernst developed a technique called frottage, which involved placing paper over materials with exciting textures and rubbing it with a pencil to capture the patterns below. He used this technique in his surrealist paintings, collage, and other unconventional methods to create bizarre and uncanny compositions.

Finding His Voice: Dadaism 

In the wake of World War I, Ernst joined the Dada movement in Cologne, Germany. Dada artists rejected traditional esthetics and bourgeois values, instead embracing nonsense and irrationality. 

Ernst explored Dadaist techniques like collage, photomontage, and frottage (rubbing). His Dadaist works incorporated found materials in jarring, illogical juxtapositions that upended expectations about art.

Finding His Voice: Surrealism

Ernst’s surrealist works often featured biomorphic shapes, strange creatures, and empty landscapes. Ernst meant for his eccentric and frightening subjects to shock viewers out of complacency.

In the 1920s, Ernst transitioned to the Surrealist movement, fascinated by the imagination and the uncanny. The Surrealists sought to convey the workings of the subconscious and dreams. Ernst developed a grattage technique, scratching through layers of paint to create texture. Works like:

  • “The Elephant Celebes” (1921) features strange, illogical scenes and spectral creatures.
  • “Europe After the Rain” has a dreamlike and unsettling quality.
  • The King Playing with the Queen (1959) features strange anthropomorphic forms of wood, string, and other media.

Why Was Max Ernst Important to Surrealism?

Through these artistic friendships and relationships, Ernst helped define and spread Surrealism. His innovative techniques and dreamlike style came to epitomize the Surrealist movement. Ernst gave as much as he gained from these connections, influencing his contemporaries as much as they inspired him.

Fame in Paris: Friendships With Famous Artists

In 1921, Ernst met the French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard. Éluard was instrumental in promoting Ernst’s art, helping to establish his reputation. Éluard purchased many of Ernst’s paintings and introduced his work to poet friends like André Breton

Ernst and Éluard collaborated on publications, with Éluard providing poetry to accompany Ernst’s illustrations. Their friendship and working relationship lasted over 20 years.

The Surrealist Circle

Through Éluard, Ernst became acquainted with Breton and other Surrealists. In 1922, Breton included Ernst’s work in his first Surrealist exhibition. Ernst joined the Surrealist group and participated in exhibitions and activities in Paris over the following decades. Other prominent Surrealists Ernst associated with included Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and Alberto Giacometti.

Relationship with Leonora Carrington

In 1937, Ernst met the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. She became his lover and artistic collaborator. Ernst inspired her fantastical style of painting. Carrington was devastated when Ernst was interned as an “enemy alien” in France in 1939. 

She had a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. Though Ernst arranged her release, their relationship ended during this troubled time. Still, Carrington continued to consider Ernst her “one great love.”

Max Ernst List of Work

Max Ernst
Image Credit: MoMA

Collage Novels

Ernst returned to collage techniques, creating collage “novels” that combined images and text in a sequential narrative form. 


La femme 100 têtes


Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel


A Week of Kindness

World War II and Life in America

During World War II, Ernst’s art was condemned by the Nazi party as “degenerate art.” His work was featured in a 1937 exhibition of modern art held by the Nazis to mock such art. Ernst fled to France to escape persecution but was again detained by the French as an “undesirable alien” after the German occupation of France. He was released in 1941 with the help of the American journalist Varian Fry and artist Peggy Guggenheim, a great patron of the surrealists.

Ernst eventually escaped to America with Guggenheim’s help, settling in New York City. The relocation proved difficult for Ernst, who did not speak English. However, the move introduced his work to new appreciators and connected him with other surrealists like Marcel Duchamp, who had also fled to New York. For the next decade, Ernst continued to paint and sculpt, developing new techniques and experimenting with new materials.

Some of Ernst’s most famous works from this period include



His art evolved from the biomorphic shapes of his early surrealist period to a more abstract style in his later years.


‘The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E. and the Artist’


Grand Prize

At the Venice Biennale

What Was Max Ernst Interested In?

Max Ernst was a highly influential artist interested in exploring the subconscious mind and the world of dreams. He was one of the key figures in the Surrealist movement, which sought to unlock the power of the unconscious and tap into the limitless possibilities of the imagination.

Ernst was fascinated by the idea that art could delve into the hidden depths of the mind, revealing secret desires, fears, and fantasies. His artwork often featured strange and surreal imagery, combining elements from different sources to create dreamlike compositions. 

Late Period and Legacy: Provence and Beyond

In his later years, Ernst continued to push the boundaries of surrealism and explore new creative directions. He spent much of the 1950s and 1960s living and working in Seillans, Provence, producing sculptures, collages, and other works that incorporated found objects and natural materials.

In 1954, Ernst received the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale, recognizing his status as a pioneering surrealist artist. Major retrospectives of his work were held around the world. When Ernst died in 1976 at 84, he was hailed as one of the most influential surrealist artists of the 20th century. 

His creative experimentation with collage, frottage, sculpture, and other techniques explored the bizarre and uncanny, revolutionizing modern art. Ernst’s work has endured and continues to inspire new generations of artists. His pioneering surrealist spirit lives on.

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