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Max Ernst: A Retrospective

April 7–July 10, 2005

About the Artist

Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, in Brühl, a small German town located near the Rhine River between Bonn and Cologne. His father, Philipp Ernst, a devout Catholic and an academic painter, was a teacher at a school for the deaf. Max Ernst, an avid reader, studied philosophy, history of art, literature, and psychology at the University of Bonn from 1909 to 1914. Highly intelligent and imaginative, he initially began painting in a naive Expressionist style that mingled aspects of Cubism with Futurism.

From 1914 to 1917, during World War I, Ernst served in the German army on both the western and eastern fronts. He continued painting in the Expressionist style until the summer of 1919, when he saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico reproduced in the magazine Valori Plastici. This encounter with the melancholy, magical, and empty cityscapes of the Italian artist proved decisive for Ernst's later artistic development, as he became one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the Dada movement in Cologne. Before long, his remarkable Dada collages attracted the attention of the French poets and writers André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard in Paris, who saw in these works analogies to their own poetic experiments.

In 1921, Breton organized an exhibition of Ernst's Dada collages in Paris, and in 1922, Ernst moved to the French capital, never to work again in his native country. Three years later, in 1924, the thirty-three-year-old artist became one of the founding members of the Surrealist group. The proto-Surrealist paintings that he created between 1921 and 1923, first in Cologne and later in Paris, are now regarded as signature works of the movement. Composed of illusionistic but irrational scenes, they evoke dreams and hallucinations but defy interpretation. These powerful images later influenced the early works of Tanguy, Masson, Magritte, and Dalí among others.

The artist's collages are even more representative of the Surrealist movement. In them, Ernst combined cutout details from a variety of sources, including nineteenth-century engravings from popular novels and mail-order catalogues, and botanical and scientific prints from teaching-aid catalogues. These transformed images are fantastic, magical, sometimes disquieting, and always surprising.

In 1941, escaping the Nazi threat in Europe, Max Ernst arrived in the United States. First in New York, and later in Sedona, Arizona, he created remarkable paintings and sculptures. In 1953, Ernst returned permanently to Europe, and died in Paris in 1976, one night before his eighty-fifth birthday.