Ernst was born on 2 April 1891 in Bruhl, near Cologne, the first son of Philipp Ernst, teacher of the deaf and amateur painter, and his wife, Luise, née Kopp.
Ernst received no formal artistic education, however studied Philosophy and Psychiatry at Bon university until 1914, when he met Jean Arp. After serving in the first world war, in 1919 Ernst and Johannes T. Baargeld founded the Cologne Dadaist group. Dadaism was the precursor to the Surrealist movement and dealt with the nullification and mockery of the established world. An exhibition in 1920 was closed by the police due to obscenity.
Surrealism and frottage
In 1922 he moved to Paris along with friends Gala and Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and others. During this year he painted 'A reunion of friends', which depicted his associates. It was after this time that Ernst took an active part in founding the surrealist movement. Breton wrote the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924. Ernst also invented a style of art called frottage in 1925. The technique involves pencil rubbings on paper or canvas and also translated to paint scrapings, called grattage. Ernst completed many paintings with this technique.
In common with much of the surrealist works, there were many symbols which were recurrent in Ernst's work. Amongst the most common are forests and doves and a fantasy bird like creature called Loplop. Ernst often depicted himself as a dove or would use Loplop as a form of narration and self commentary, his "private phantom
" to quote Ernst himself. The forests remind Ernst of the enchantment and terror he experienced in the German forests as a child. Ernst on the forests of Oceania "They are, it seems, savage and impenetrable, black and russet, extravagant, secular, swarming, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent, and likeable, without yesterday or tomorrow. . . . Naked, they dress only in their majesty and their mystery
In 1937 Ernst distanced himself from the Communist element of the Surrealist movement, including Breton. At the outbreak of world war two he was arrested by the French authorities as a 'hostile alien', but was soon released thanks to the intervention of Eluard. However, during the Nazi occupation of France he was arrested again, this time by the Gestapo, but managed to escape and flee with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, a sponsor of the arts. Soon after Ernst fled to the USA to continue his work.
Max Ernst died on 1st April 1976 in Paris, one day before his 85th birthday.