“Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition.”
Max Ernst was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet, born in Bruhl, near Cologne, and was the third of nine children of a middle-class Catholic family. His father Philipp was a teacher of the deaf and an amateur painter, a devout Christian. 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. At the same year the artist started painting and produced sketches in the garden of the Bruhl castle, and portraits of his sister and himself. 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 Picasso and post-Impressionists influenced very much his approach to art. His own work was exhibited the same year together with that of the Das Junge Rheinland group, at Galerie Feldman in Cologne, and then in several group exhibitions in 1913. A prolific artist, Ernst was a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism. He was born in 1922 the artist moved to Paris, where two years later he became a founding member of the group of Surrealists, alongside with Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, whose work grew out of fantasies evoked from the unconscious. To stimulate the flow of imagery from his unconscious mind, Ernst began in 1925 to use the techniques of frottage (pencil rubbings of such things as wood grain, fabric, or leaves) and decalcomania (the technique of transferring paint from one surface to another by pressing the two surfaces together). A key contribution to this movement was also his invention of frottage, a technique of placing paper over a textured material, such as wood grain or metal mesh, and rubbing it with a pencil or crayon to achieve various effects.
Max Ernst, Oedipus Rex, 1922
At the outbreak of World War II, Max Ernst moved to the United States, where he joined his third wife, the collector and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, which introduced him to the American art scene.
Among his most famous paintings is the The Elephant Celebes, that was painted in Cologne in 1921 and was Max Ernst's first large picture. It was bought shortly after its completion by his friend the poet Paul Eluard and later passed from him to Sir Roland Penrose, who owned it until 1975 when he gave it to be sold for the benefit of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Sir Roland's Charlton Lecture, is by far the most detailed study of it and is the basis of the following note. The reader is referred to it for a detailed compositional analysis and interpretation. This painting grew directly out of Ernst's use of collage from 1919 onwards to produce bizarre combinations of images, though no preliminary collages or sketches were made for it. The idea of the painting appeared spontaneously on the canvas with few alterations as it progressed.
Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921
The boiler-like monster to which the title refers is, like the rest of the painting, highly ambiguous. It has a horned head with apparently sightless eyes, but a pair of tusks projecting on the left suggests the possible presence of a second head on the other side. Its neck seems to consist of a long snake-like coil which emerges from a hole in its upper section; the top is surmounted by a brightly-coloured construction containing a mysterious eye. It seems to be standing in a large open space, but there are also indications that it is embedded in a solid background, while two fishes swim in the sky above. Three upright objects stand around it, while in the bottom corner a headless mannequin figure with a raised arm appears to be beckoning the monster towards it.
As was first noted by John Craxton and subsequently confirmed by Ernst himself, the image of the boiler-like form on its pair of 'legs' was originally inspired by an illustration in an English anthropological journal of a huge communal corn-bin peculiar to the Konkombwa tribe of the southern Sudan. The photograph is taken from the same angle and is basically very similar, but the artist has given the hollow clay container a metallic appearance and changed its character completely by adding the various appendages described above.
Max Ernst, Attirement of the Bride, 1940
Another remarkable painting of Max Ernst is the Napoleon in the Wilderness, which dates from 1941, the year in which Germany launched its Russian campaign on the Eastern Front. It presents a Surrealist interpretation of the theatre of World War II by Max Ernst.
Napoleon in the Wilderness was painted in the USA, where the artist had made a new home after fleeing Europe. Max Ernst here shows us a fantasy world combining references to different historical epochs and cultures. It is tempting to link this painting, with its strange group of figures on the seashore, with the situation of the artist in exile.
Max Ernst, Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941
In order to create the captivating colors of the painting, Max Ernst used a special artistic technique called decalcomania. Decalcomania developed in eighteenth-century England was first used by the Surrealist Oscar Dominguez in 1936 and later taken up by Max Ernst. The artist produced works starting in the late 1930s in which paint was spread over some parts of the canvas, then glass or a sheet of paper was pressed onto it. Chance air bubbles, rivulets, and fragments of paint, producing a varied surface structure also came about when the glass or paper was lifted from the canvas. In a further step, he used a paintbrush to transform the found structures, recalling coral or moss.