10 things to know about Max Ernst, pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism

Max Ernst is often described as ‘the complete Surrealist’. While his haunting paintings explore the mysteries of the subconscious, he was also a fabulous colourist and a brilliant technician who reinvented his work throughout his life

Max Ernst in the house he shared with then-wife Peggy Guggenheim, New York, 1942

Max Ernst sits in a high-backed chair, a cigarette in his hand, in the house he shared with then-wife Peggy Guggenheim, New York, 1942. Photo: Arnold Newman / Getty Images

Ernst was born into a strict German family in the forested Rhineland

Max Ernst (1891-1976) grew up in the heavily forested region near Cologne in Germany in what he described as ‘a banal and almost happy childhood. There were a few jolts. The lasting traces which they left can be seen in my work.’

Ernst’s father Philipp taught deaf children and appears to have been an imposing, even fearsome figure of authority. In his autobiographical essay Beyond Painting, Ernst recalled seeing visions in the mahogany panel at the end of his bed of a threatening man with an upturned moustache (‘the moustaches of my father’) whipping a spinning top featuring vicious-looking animals.

Philipp was also an accomplished amateur artist, and passed on his love of painting to his son.

After serving as an artillery engineer during the First World War, Ernst declared himself dead

Looking back on the war, Ernst wrote: ‘On the first of August 1914 Max Ernst died. He was reborn on the first of November 1918 as a young man who aspired to find the myths of his time.’

That resurrection came in Cologne amidst the artistic chaos of Dada, an ideology loosely shared by artists and writers all over the continent who sought to express their disillusionment with European culture in as provocative and destructive a manner as possible.

This disorder took many forms. In one Dada exhibition, visitors were invited to enter through a public lavatory and given little axes with which to destroy any artwork they didn’t like. A Dada exhibition in Paris featured the poet André Breton (1896-1966) — whose Surrealist Manifesto was published in 1924 — barking like a dog and Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) playing hide-and-seek.

Max Ernst (1891-1976), démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température, 1920. Paper collage, gouache, pen and India ink and pencil on paper laid on the artist’s mount. Image: 9⅜ x 6¾ in (24 x 17 cm). Estimate: £150,000-250,000. Offered in The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

After participating in the Dada group, Ernst became a founding member of the Surrealist movement

The Surrealists were searching for ways to express the unconscious mind. One method involved relinquishing control of the creative process by going into a trance-like state and writing or doodling whatever came to them. Automatism, as it was called, was a source of intense frustration to Ernst, whose mind was too analytical for such impulsiveness. In a fit of vexation, he once picked up the artist Joan Miró (1893-1983) and shook him, demanding, ‘How do you do it?’

However, Ernst was fortunate to have studied psychology at Bonn University, where he read the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Psychoanalysis became central to Ernst’s artistic practice: Freud’s descriptions of dreams enabled the artist to make pictures of the unconscious without having to go into a hypnotic trance.

Owing to his great knowledge of Freud, his paintings are sometimes interpreted as dark caverns of repressed sexual urges. Yet there are other themes at play, too: as a lapsed Catholic, Ernst was interested in the idea that religion was the result of deep-rooted neuroses. 

He was also fascinated by black magic at a time when the boundaries between dynamic psychology and the occult were blurred, most notably in the writings of Carl Jung (1875-1961) on parapsychology.

He had an obsession with birds and painted them often

Ernst rationalised his fixation with birds by recounting a strange experience he had had as a teenager: in 1906 the artist’s pet parrot died the same night his sister was born. The incident developed, he said, ‘a dangerous confusion between birds and humans that became encrusted in my mind’.

Max Ernst (1891-1976), Loplop im Wald, 1958. Oil on paper. 11¾ x 9¾ in (29.7 x 24.8 cm). Estimate: £35,000-55,000. Offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day and Works on Paper Sale on 8 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

This obsession materialised into an alter-ego called Loplop, which took the form of a demonic man-bird in his paintings. As he wrote in 1930, ‘I was visited nearly every day by the Bird Superior named Loplop, an extraordinary phantom of model fidelity who attached himself to my person. He presented me with a heart in a cage, two petals, three leaves, a flower and a girl.’

The artist used the forest as a symbol of discovery as well as the mysterious recesses of the human mind

Ernst once recalled how childhood excursions with his father into the great Rhineland forests near his home in Brühl had filled him with terror and ecstasy. In 1927 he began a series of richly painted works that explored these sensations.

Cage, forêt et soleil noir (1927) depicts a caged bird in a forest, its hollow eye the same colour as the sky. It is a strange, disorientating picture that raises many questions. Are we lost in the dense undergrowth of the forest, or inside the artist’s mind?

Max Ernst (1891-1976), Untitled (Person with two birds), 1957. Oil on canvas. 31¾ x 25½ in (80.6 x 64.7 cm). Estimate: £150,000-250,000. Offered in The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Dreamlike images of birds and trees connect Ernst’s paintings to the earlier German Romantic tradition. The dramatist Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) once wrote that looking at the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was like seeing the world ‘with cut eyelids’. Ernst’s paintings are similarly unnerving.

Ernst is often described as ‘the complete Surrealist’ because of his terrific ingenuity

Ernst experimented with many different techniques, including sculpture, collage, frottage, grattage, oscillation, dripping and decalcomania. He reinvented his artistic techniques constantly from the mid-1910s until his death in 1976. He also turned out to be the most exquisite colourist.

His 1925 painting of a flock of birds converging in a cloud of paint, above, is an early example of grattage (scraping), in which paint is scraped off the canvas to allow the texture and colour of the surface underneath to show through.

He also made rubbings (frottage) after observing a wooden floor in a hotel room, ‘the grain of which had been deepened and exposed by countless scrubbings. I decided to investigate the symbolism of this obsession.’

Max Ernst (1891-1976), Les peupliers, 1939. Oil with decalcomania on paper laid down on panel. 15¼ x 11 in (38.8 x 28 cm). Sold for £475,000 on 23 March 2021 at Christie’s in London

Even as an enemy alien in France during the Second World War, Ernst found ways to make art by using decalcomania, a technique in which paint is squashed between two pieces of paper and peeled back to reveal a textural surface. Les peupliers  (1939), above, was created while Ernst was imprisoned in an internment camp together with his friend and fellow Surrealist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975).

Ernst’s paintings were confiscated from museums and labelled degenerate by the Nazis

In an interview with the British artist Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Ernst declared that art history was made by mad men. It was the Surrealist’s way of dealing with the irrationality and collective insanity of Fascism. Ernst had never engaged explicitly with politics, but towards the end of the 1930s he began to lash out in his paintings. The threat of impending war impelled him to create works that were a scream of rage against brutality and stupidity.

Ernst had a succession of relationships with beautiful and powerful women

His first wife was the German academic Luise Straus, who left him after he became embroiled in a torturous love triangle with Paul Eluard (1895-1952) and his wife Gala (1894-1982), who later married Salvador Dalí.

In 1927 he eloped with the troubled painter Marie Berthe Aurenche (1905-1960), and then abandoned her for the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011).


Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in 1947 with his sculpture, Capricorn. Photo: John Kasnetsis. © John Kasnetsis. Artwork: © Max Ernst, DACS

In 1941 Ernst escaped to America with the help of the art collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), who became his third wife — until he met the artist Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) the following year at an art gallery in New York. He was to remain with Tanning until his death in 1976.

Ernst inspired Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings

While living on Long Island in the 1940s, Ernst started playing around with a technique called ‘oscillation’, which involved splashing paint through a hole in the bottom of a can suspended by a piece of string. The sweeping curves and drips of paint looked like planets in orbit, and encouraged the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) to carry out similar experiments, which later became known as ‘Action painting’.

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Ernst compared the process of painting to that of writing a poem

Ernst created his own category of art: with the textures of his surfaces, his restless experimentation and the complexity of the work he produced, he is like no other painter. Ultimately, his works evoke, with gentle anguish, the brutality and exhilarating madness of the times he lived through.

The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale takes place alongside the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024, part of Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art auctions from 27 February to 21 March. Find out more about the preview exhibition and sales here

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