Max Ernst

Biography of Max Ernst

Few artists could be said to have disrupted and influenced the art world quite like Max Ernst, whose explorations into automated painting and the unconscious made him a key figure in both Dadism and Surrealism.


Born in Germany in 1891, from a young age Ernst showed signs of his non-conformity and refused to follow figures of authority. Without receiving any formal training in art, he was visiting mental asylums and became fascinated by art made by the mentally ill. Deeply affected by his experiences in World War I, he returned from the front line, traumatized and derisive of the conventions of European society.


Max Ernst’s first works were fantastical, haunting scenes, that he made in Cologne after the war had ended. By late 1919 he was experimenting with collages which were driven by irrationality, allowing him to mine his own subconscious. One such technique, frottage, involved the artist using pencil rubbings as a source of images.


Leaving his wife, Max Ernst moved to Paris and became a leading light of the Surrealist Movement. His automated image-making, and use of invented techniques were combined with his use of hallucinogens and hypnotherapy to explore his dreams. He had been immensely inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud, whose theories on the self, and the link between sexuality and human identity had had a profound impact on visual art.


Forced to move to New York after the Nazis seized power in Germany and later France, Max Ernst became close friends with Marcel Duchamp. His marriage to Peggy Guggenheim, the patron of the arts, propelled his career forward. His experiments with making accidental art from his unconscious, electrified American painters, especially the then burgeoning members of the Abstract Expressionists.


From the 1950s Max Ernst spent most of his time living in France. He was awarded the Grand Prize for painting at the Venice Biennale in 1954. He died in 1976 in Paris aged 84, and is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery. Ernst reputation and influence is immense and shows no signs of abating. In 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York put on the monumental “Max Ernst: A Retrospective”. His work can be seen in the most prominent art collections around the world. 

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