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Ernst, Max

Category: Artist and sculptor

Max Ernst (2 April 1891 – 1 April 1976) was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst was one of the primary pioneers of the Dada movement and Surrealism.  Ernst developed a fascination with birds that was prevalent in his work. His alter ego in paintings, which he called Loplop, was a bird.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning

Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, in Brühl, near Cologne, the third of nine children of a middle-class Catholic family. His father Philipp Ernst was a teacher of the deaf and an amateur painter. A devout Christian and a strict disciplinarian, he inspired in his son a penchant for defying authority, while his interest in painting and sketching in nature influenced Max Ernst 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; he also started painting this year, producing sketches in the garden of the Brühl castle and portraits of his sister and himself.

After Ernst completed his studies in the summer, his life was interrupted by World War I. Ernst was drafted and served both on the Western and the Eastern front. Such was the devastating effect of the war on the artist that in his autobiography he referred to his time in the army thus:

"On the first of August 1914 M[ax].E[rnst]. died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918."

Ernst was demobilized in 1918 and returned to Cologne. He soon married art history student Luise Straus, whom he met in 1914. Ernst's son Ulrich 'Jimmy' Ernst was born on 24 June 1920.  He went on to become a painter like his father, but Ernst's marriage to Luise was short-lived.  

In 1921 he met Paul Éluard, who became a close lifelong friend. In 1922, unable to secure the necessary papers, Ernst entered France illegally and settled into a ménage à trois with the Éluards in Paris, leaving behind his wife and son.  Although apparently accepting the ménage à trois at first, Éluard eventually became more concerned about the affair. After a brief time together in Saigon, the trio decided that Gala would remain with Paul.

In 1927, he married Marie-Berthe Aurenche, and it is thought his relationship with her may have inspired the erotic subject matter of The Kiss and other works of this year.

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, along with fellow surrealist, Hans Bellmer, who had recently emigrated to Paris. Thanks to the intercession of Paul Éluard and other friends, including the journalist Varian Fry, he was discharged a few weeks later. Soon after the Nazi 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, the American heiress and artistic patron. He left behind his lover, Leonora Carrington, and she suffered a major mental breakdown.  Peggy Guggenheim had acquired a number of Max Ernst's works in 1938, which she had displayed in her new museum in London.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning

 Ernst and Penny Guggenheim arrived in the United States in 1941 and were married the following year. The marriage lasted from 1942 to 1946.

 In October 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet P. Browner, Ernst married Dorothea Tanning.

In 1953, he and Tanning moved to a small town in the south of France where he continued to work. The City, and the Galeries Nationales du Grand-Palais in Paris published a complete catalogue of his works.


In 1966 he created a chess set made of glass [crystal] which he named "Immortel"; it has been described by the poet André Verdet as "a masterpiece of bewitching magic, worthy of a Maya palace or the residence of a Pharaoh".

Ernst died on 1 April 1976 in Paris.

As we can see therefore there were two main drivers to the genius of Max Ernst – love [making love, unrequited love, grief from failed love and loss]  and the effects of war – both wars.  One in which he was directly involved and the other in which he must have anticipated the horror of what might happen and which forced him to leave his home and his then lover.

He had a lot of demons inflicted on him, furthermore in the mental breakdown that Carrington experienced he also had demons that he had inflicted on others.  His paintings are an expression of his Expunging demons – he used art as a mechanism of expulsion.

And, pure supposition, he was probably left handed.  The way he parts his hair indicates he was.


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