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Brühl 1891 – 1976 Paris

Max Ernst was a central figure European Dada and Surrealism. His œuvre manifests a confluence of the formal possibilities of collage and a fascination with psychology and the unconscious. Ernst undertook wide-ranging compositional and technical experimentations to help him in the Surrealist quest for the beauty in the irrational. He notably invented frottage, grattage and oscillations which represented breakthroughs for ‘automatism’, a Surrealist concern for freeing the creative process by accessing the unconscious.

His early style fluctuated between Expressionism and Cubism, but his traumatic experience as a gunner in the First World War dramatically shifted his work towards Dada. After founding Cologne Dada in 1919 he began fruitful exchanges with his friend Jean Arp (1886–1966) and Johannes Baargeld (1892–1927). His first collages were humorous subversions of military propaganda or consumerism, often displaying anthropomorphized machinery with lewd undertones. In The Hat Makes the Man (1920), hats cut from magazines are stacked to resemble phallic pistons. Other compositions cause a sense of unease and claustrophobia, such as The Master’s Bedroom (1920). Ernst’s close engagement with Surrealism came after his move to Paris in 1921 where he became a close friend of Paul Éluard (1895–1952) and André Breton (1896–1966). He created a series of works deeply concerned with his own psychology and the visualization of dreams such as Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924). Despite Ernst’s iconoclastic Dadaist period, his work is indebted to nineteenth-century German and French art. In 1934 Ernst produced his remarkable collage-novel Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), inspired by Gustave Doré’s (1832–83) prints. Many of Ernst’s paintings show the impact of Symbolists like Gustave Moreau (1826–98), Franz von Stuck (1863–1928) and Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901). Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride (1940), for instance, brings together the unease and juxtaposition of Dada with the theatricality of Symbolism in a setting reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s (1888–1978) dreamscapes. During the 1920s and 1930s, Ernst produced a series of grattage paintings that engaged with the atavistic myth of the German forest, like The Forest (1927/28) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In these grattages Ernst transferred the wood grain of planks unto his canvases, thereby creating random patterns. This would enable Ernst to let his unconscious find shapes which he could use as a starting point for his work, achieving a form of ‘automatism’.

In 1947, after a brief marriage to Peggy Guggenheim he moved to Arizona with Dorothea Tanning and produced his famed Capricorn (1947). In 1953 he returned to France and began a particularly prolific second phase of sculptural production. He would assemble various objets trouvés such as seashells and pots of plants into anthropomorphic shape and cast them in bronze. It represented an interesting sculptural translation of Dadaist collage, not only because of the unusual juxtapositions but also their subtle subversions, such as his L’Imbécile (1961) which probably represents a priest.


Top Auction Results for Max Ernst

The stolen mirror
Sold for $16,322,500
New York, Christie’s, 1 November 2011, Impressionist and Modern Even Sale, lot 36

la Roi Jouant avec le Reine
Sold for $15,987,500
New York, Sotheby’s, 16 May 2017, Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, lot 4 

Le Couple (L’Accolade)
Sold for $9,125,000
New York, Christie’s, 11 May 2015, Looking Forward to the Past, lot 7A

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