Max Ernst

After investigating Ernst and frottage I decided to look at the work of Max Ernst in a bit more depth.  He was deeply interested in the link between the unconscious and conscious mind.  This came from his early reading of Freud and his observations of images created by mentally-ill patients.  Throughout this life Ernst explored this link, particularly the use of automatism in painting, where chance and the unconscious mind plays a part in producing the image.  What made Ernst’s use of this imagery interesting for me was how he developed the ‘automatic’ image using his conscious mind.  Over his life he developed and explored a huge variety of techniques, often revisiting or combining them at various points in his artistic career.

He was associated with the Dada movement using collage to question both traditional art values and the accepted general cultural values of the time.  He arranged photographs and engravings prompted by illustrations in scientific catalogues and added line, areas of colour or a landscape not associated with the original objects.  In May 1921 he exhibited a series of collages entitled ‘Beyond Painting’ at the Au Sans Pareil Gallery in Paris; the mechanistic nature of the collages show Ernst being influenced by de Chico, Duchamp and Picabia (Turpin 1979, 1993: 8).  Even the titles of the collages were dubbed ‘verbal collages’ as they reflected the distortion of reality present in the images themselves.

Hydrometric Demonstration, 1920. Oil on canvas, 24x117cm. Paris, Galerie Jacques Tronche

Ernst went onto produce Picture Poems in which the words not only relate to the image but are also part of the structure of the composition.

Who is this Tall, Sick Man …, 1923-4. Oil on Canvas, 65.4×50 cm. Switzerland, Private Collection.

In 1922 Ernst became associated with the Surrealist movement and it is here he used automatism to discover frottage and went on to adapt the technique to oil painting, calling it grattage (see previous post).

Two Sisters, 1926. Oil and frontage with black lead on canvas, 100×73 cm. Private Collection.

Ernst then produced his Forest series in which he explored childhood memories and the work of earlier German painters; a series based around birds particularly Loplop, The Superior of Birds; the Horde series which used twine to create coils on the surface from which an image emerges; and, the Whole Cities series.

In the 1930s Ernst produced the collage novel which used 19th century book illustrations cut-up and rearranged to change the original meaning of the illustrations.  These rearranged novels lack a cohesive story with no clear beginning, middle or end and were rather, a loosely connected series of depicted events.  The first novel was called The Hundred Headed Women where the women is both headless and many headed at the same time.

In the late 1930s Ernst experimented with fellow Surrealist Hans Bellmer with an automatic painting technique called decalcomania.  In this technique ink is sandwiched between layers of paper to produce the initial image; Ernst adapted this technique to oil painting taking the initial image and adding layers to create a contrast between the areas of chance and more conscious painting.

Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941. Oil on canvas, 46.3×38.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art.

Ernst then developed his oscillations painting where paint is dripped onto the canvas from a swinging can with a hole in the bottom.  The resultant image then acts as a stimulus to develop the conscious image.

Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly, 1942-7. Oil and varnish on canvas, 82×66 cm. Switzerland, Private Collection.

Reading about Ernst has certainly made me more aware of the need to experiment and also let chance play a part in my image making.  I do not fully buy into the unconscious mind aspect as I believe that as evolved beings you are ‘consciously being unconscious’.  However chance and randomness is something I think has exciting potential.  I know I can be quite controlling in the way I draw and I need to move away from the simple depiction of the visual image.

Turpin, R. (1979,1993) Ernst. London: Phaidon Press

Oxford Art Online (2013) Ernst, Max Biography [online] At: (Accessed on 15 November 2016)


Author: gbond1104

Studying Drawing 1 as my first course on a BA (Hons) in Painting

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