Max Ernst (born in Brühl, North Rheinland, Germany 1891; died in Paris, France 1976) was an entirely self-taught artist. Like many young European men of his generation, he was drafted and saw action in the First World War. The revulsion Ernst and his friends felt at the horrors of the War led them to form the Cologne Dada group in 1919.
Ernst began as a painter, but, influenced by the work of Picasso, Paul Klee (whom he knew personally), and Giorgio de Chirico, he started creating collages in 1915. He seems to have been particularly struck by the odd, abrupt juxtapositions of objects and their parts within the landscapes in De Chirico’s paintings. Much of Ernst’s later work (both collage and painting) would evoke irrational scenes of impossible objects in imaginary settings.
But at first Ernst moved into collage slowly. An early series of lithographs, Fiat modes pereat ars (Let There be Fashion, Down with Art), shows line drawings of Chirico-esque tailor’s dummies in scenes with distorted, contradictory, or forced perspective. The letter of collage may be absent, but its spirit is evident in the illogically combined parts of the dummies and their surroundings, which resemble mathematical diagrams, windows, & machine parts.
In the early 20’s, Ernst created actual collages from the great wealth of illustrated 19th-century publications then available: children’s books and magazines; popular scientific journals and books dealing with natural history, anatomy, biology, and paleontology; lurid romantic novels; technical manuals; and catalogues of agricultural machinery, industrial tools and hardware, and educational models and teaching aids. Most of the illustrations in these books and periodicals were wood engravings, with a scattering of more expensive-to-produce lithographs and halftones. (Many of the technical handbooks and catalogues that were still up-to-date continued to rely on wood engravings and scratchboard drawings — an inexpensive way of producing the wood engraving look without carving a woodblock — well into the mid-20th century, because their images were much easier to see than those of halftone photo illustrations, and more accurate.)
Ernst drew liberally from this treasure trove of pictures to produce collages of many kinds. Some were “purist” montages of wood engravings, while others combined collage with drawing and painting. Sometimes Ernst used such collages as an adjunct to painting. In the 1920s and 1930s he created many wood engraving montages as episodes in wordless collage-novels (an early form of the graphic novel): La femme 100 têtes (whose title is a French pun on the homonyms “cent”  and “sans” [without]; usually translated as The Hundred Headless Woman, 1929); Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au carmel (A Young Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930); and Une semaine de bonté(A Week of Kindness,1934).
Throughout his life, Max Ernst was endlessly, restlessly prolific, not only in the number and genre of artworks he produced, but also in the invention of new techniques of image-making. In the mid-1920s he developed the method of frottage, a form of rubbing with graphite that allowed him to collage together a variety of textures on one piece of paper. Later, working with the Spanish artist Joan Miró, Ernst experimented with grattage (scraping wet paint off a textured surface of a canvas to expose it in contrasts of color and value). He also created pictures by pressing wet paint between a canvas and another surface and pulling away the second surface while the paint was still wet, producing semi-random patterns of color and texture. (Ernst and others appropriated the name decalcomania for this method, after a 19th-century process of decorating pottery with image transfer decals.)
The young Joseph Cornell, later to become a master of collage himself, created his first serious collages after seeing an exhibition of Ernst’s montages at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. And Max Ernst’s haunting collage images continue to inspire numerous artists and writers in our time.
(All text created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)