Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, in Bruhl, Germany. Ernst enrolled in the University of Bonn in year of 1909, studying philosophy, art history, literature, psychology and psychiatry, but soon abandoned this pursuit to concentrate on art. At this time he was interested in psychology and the art of the mentally ill. In 1911 Ernst became a friend of August Macke and joined the Die Rheinischen Expressionisten group of artists, deciding to become an artist. Ernst showed for the first time in 1912 at the Galerie Feldman in Cologne. At the Sonderbund exhibition of that year in Cologne he saw the work of Paul Cézanne, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh, profoundly influencing his approach to art. In 1913 he met Guillaume Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay and traveled to Paris. Ernst participated that same year in the Erste deutsche Herbstsalon. In 1914 he met Jean Arp, who was to become a lifelong friend.
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.” However, for a brief period on the Western front, Ernst’s position was charting maps, which allowed him to continue painting and to exhibit in Berlin at Der Sturm in 1916. Several German Expressionist painters died in action during the war, among them Macke and Franz Marc.
He returned to Cologne in 1918. The next year he produced his first collages and founded the short-lived Cologne Dada movement with Johannes Theodor Baargeld; they were joined by Arp and others. In 1921 Ernst exhibited for the first time in Paris, at the Galerie au Sans Pareil. He was involved in Surrealist activities in the early 1920s with Paul Eluard and André Breton.
In 1925 Ernst executed his first frottages; a series of frottages was published in his book Histoire naturelle in 1926. He collaborated with Joan Miró on designs for Sergei Diaghilev that same year. The first of his collage-novels, La Femme 100 têtes, was published in 1929. The following year the artist collaborated with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel on the film L’Age d’or.
Constantly experimenting, in 1925 he invented a graphic art technique called frottage, which uses pencil rubbings of objects as a source of images. He also created another technique called ‘grattage’ in which paint is scraped across canvas to reveal the imprints of the objects placed beneath. He uses this technique in his famous painting Forest and Dove (as shown at the Tate Modern). A series of frottages was published in his book Histoire naturelle.
The next year he collaborated with Joan Miró on designs for Sergei Diaghilev. With Miró’s help, Ernst pioneered grattage in which he troweled pigment from his canvases. He also explored with the technique of decalcomania which involves pressing paint between two surfaces.
His first American show was held at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, in 1932. In 1936 Ernst was represented in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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 Guggenheim. He left behind his lover, Leonora Carrington, and she suffered a major mental breakdown. Ernst and Guggenheim arrived in the United States in 1941 and were married the following year. 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.
His marriage to Guggenheim did not last, and in Beverly Hills, California in October 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet P. Browner, he married Dorothea Tanning. The couple first made their home in Sedona, Arizona. In 1948 Ernst wrote the treatise Beyond Painting. As a result of the publicity, he began to achieve financial success.
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 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 Pharaon“.
Ernst died on 1 April 1976 in Paris. He was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery.