Max Ernst (2 April 1891 – 1 April 1976) was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst was a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism.
His father Philipp was a teacher of the deaf and an amateur painter, a devout Christian and a strict disciplinarian. He inspired in Max a penchant for defying authority, while his interest in painting and sketching in nature influenced Max to take up painting himself. In 1909 Ernst enrolled in the University of Bonn, studying philosophy, art history, literature, psychology and psychiatry. He visited asylums and became fascinated with the art of the mentally ill patients. 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 his approach to art. In 1914 Ernst met Hans Arp in Cologne. The two soon became friends and their relationship lasted for fifty years.
In 1919, Ernst visited Paul Klee in Munich and studied paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, which deeply impressed him. The same year, he produced his first collages (notably Fiat modes, a portfolio of lithographs), a technique which would come to dominate his artistic pursuits in the years to come. 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.
In 1921 he met Paul Éluard, who became a close 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 Litterature.
Constantly experimenting, 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. He also explored with the technique of decalcomania, which involves pressing paint between two surfaces.
Ernst began to make sculpture 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. 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 America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim and Fry. 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.