Monday, July 1, 2013

Max Ernst at the Fondation Beyeler

From 26 May to 8 September 2013 there will be on exhibition of over 160 of the works the “artist of the century” Max Ernst (1891–1976) at the Fondation Beyeler in cooperation with the Albertina,Vienna.

Although the exhibitions at the Albertina and the Fondation Beyeler both direct a contemporary gaze
at Max Ernst’s oeuvre and bring together a similarly wide range of works, the two presentations differ in respect of their vantage point and their hanging and also because 21 works are being shown only at the Fondation Beyeler. Many of them, for example

The Fireside Angel (The Triumph of Surrealism),

The Robing of the Bride,


The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard and the painter

and Oedipus Rex,

are among Ernst’s most famous masterpieces.

Ernst Beyeler thought highly of Max Ernst and, as early as 1953, the artist created the series of etchings entitled Das Schnabelpaar for the art dealer from Basel. The Beyeler Collection includes seven works by Max Ernst, of which four are paintings and three are sculptures. The oldest work, Snow Flowers, was executed in the 1920s while the most recent, Birth of a Galaxy, dates from 1969.

Max Ernst is one of Modernism’s most versatile artists. After his beginnings as a rebellious Dadaist in Cologne, he moved to Paris in 1922, where he soon became one of the pioneers of Surrealism. He was interned twice as an enemy alien during the Second World but was released thanks to the intervention of the poet Paul Éluard, who was his friend. In 1941 Max Ernst fled to the USA, where he found new stimuli for his work as well as providing new impulses for the generation of young American artists. A decade later he returned to a Europe that had been devastated by the war and where the once highly esteemed Max Ernst seemed to have been forgotten, only to be rediscovered as one of the 20th century’s most multifaceted artists. In 1958, having renounced his German nationality in 1948 in order to take US citizenship, Max Ernst eventually became a French citizen.

Ernst was indeed one of the “artists of the century” – not only because of the high quality and wide range of his oeuvre but also because of the length of his creative career, which lasted around 60 years from 1915 to 1975. Active at a time of tremendous artistic, social, political and technical upheaval, he knew how to integrate these changes into his oeuvre, which therefore reflects key characteristics of the 20th century.

The pleasure Max Ernst took in experimenting with different techniques made him a pioneer of multimedia expression. With no apparent effort, he combined in his work the themes, styles and techniques that were important to successive generations. His ceaseless quest for new forms of expression, questions and subjects is emblematic of modern man. Max Ernst appears to us as the artist who never wanted to find himself, as he once said: “A painter is lost when he finds himself”.

With his early Dadaist experience, his key position among the Surrealists and his prelude to action painting, Max Ernst travelled between worlds and cultures, moving to Paris from Cologne and from New York back to France. At a time of political unrest, he maintained his critical, creative gaze, seeking refuge in a country, the USA, which he scarcely knew but to which he nonetheless responded with curiosity and which provided him with important impulses for his late work. With exhibitions in New York, projects in Arizona and Touraine, participation in the Venice Biennale and Documenta, Max Ernst was an early 20th century example of the kind of “cultural and artistic nomad” who only later became a customary figure.

In his private life, too, Max Ernst was able to master contrasts, for he effortlessly exchanged the life of a wartime refugee for an extremely glamorous life at the side of Peggy Guggenheim, who was his patroness and – for a brief period – his wife. Later he exchanged that life with virtually no transition for the remoteness of the Arizona Desert with artist Dorothea Tanning. With Luise Straus, who was his first wife and the mother of his son Jimmy, and who died in Auschwitz, with Gala Éluard, Leonora Carrington, Peggy Guggenheim and Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst surrounded himself with strong women, many of them artists and all of them his equals.

As an intellectual, who was comfortable with both the visual arts and literature, Max Ernst was also extremely curious about technology and science, particularly the natural sciences and psychoanalysis, a discipline that was of particular significance for Surrealism. The large number of artistic techniques that Max Ernst developed and promoted was both impressive and surprising, as the following summary shows:


As early as 1919, Max Ernst started working with the technique of collage, which he used to design or simulate new pictorial realities. He created his collages from illustrations taken from various novels, textbook catalogues, natural science journals and 19th century sales catalogues. He excised the fragments from wood engravings, using a scalpel in order to achieve cut edges that were perfectly exact and smooth.

In around 1929/30 Max Ernst created his most famous collage novels La femme 100 têtes (Hundred- Headed Woman/Headless Woman) and Rêve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (A little Girl dreams of taking the Veil), which are among Surrealism’s most fascinating, enigmatic works.


In around 1925, Max Ernst began his Natural History series, in which he used the technique of frottage for the first time (the French word frotter means “to rub”) as a semi-automatic procedure. He placed objets trouvés he found outdoors, such as leaves and wood, under a sheet of paper and rubbed over them with a pencil. Then he took the structures that emerged and transformed them into fantastic pictures. In his frottages, Ernst breathes new life into lifeless objects, giving them another, to some extent uncustomary, significance.

Max Ernst developed frottage while he was staying in Brittany. In his essay Beyond Painting he describes a kind of visionary revelation that caused him to use the wooden floor and other objects in his guest-house room as objects for his frottages.


Grattage is an artistic technique used by Max Ernst in painting that he developed in around 1927 as an extension of frottage. In a first phase, he applied several superimposed layers of paint to a canvas. Underneath the painting ground that he prepared in that way, he placed objects such as metal grids, wooden boards and string, the relief of which could be seen through the canvas. In order to transfer those structures to the picture, he scratched away the top layers of paint (gratter is the French word for “to scratch”.) In a subsequent phase, he reworked the patterns that had become visible, transforming them into forests, shellflowers, birds and petrified cities.


Decalcomania is a transfer technique in which the damp pigment on a piece of glass or a sheet of paper is pressed against a canvas, leaving behind fine streaks, bubbles or marbled traces of paint when they are removed. In a subsequent phase, the artist reworks the complex surface structure. This artistic technique had already been developed in the 18th century and was used by other Surrealist artists too. Max Ernst adopted the technique in the late 1930s, using it to represent mysterious landscapes peopled by eery faces, figures and animals hiding in the thickets of nature.


In around 1942, while an exile in the USA, Max Ernst started developing the technique of oscillation. He let paint drip out of a tin perforated with a number of holes, which he attached to a long string and swung to and fro over the canvas. This largely uncontrollable and, once again, semi-automatic procedure created reticulated compositions of circles, lines and points on the surface that were reminiscent of planets’ orbits. Oscillation was an innovative technique that not only extended the range of Surrealism’s artistic repertoire but also heralded Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting.

The exhibition is a chronological presentation of all the major creative phases and groups of themes in Max Ernst’s work, opening with Capricorn, his most important sculpture.

Max Ernst, who was born on 2 April 1891 in Brühl (Germany), first learnt about painting from his father. He had a conservative, middle-class upbringing, against which he soon rebelled. Starting in 1910, he studied art history as well as psychology, Romance languages and philosophy. Initially influenced by Expressionism and Futurism, he soon came in contact with other artists and art movements.

His early work

City with Animals

demonstrates this unique combination of different styles, displaying both Cubist and Futurist features. His encounter with Hans Arp (also represented in the Beyeler Collection along with the Surrealists Dalí, Giacometti and Miró) came at a time full of turmoil. Dada is born; the years after the First World War are a time of radical change, protest and experimentation. Dada brings Max Ernst into contact with Surrealist artists. He ceases to be just a German artist and becomes a leading figure in the Surrealist art movement in Paris. There his works begin to acquire enigmatic qualities, for the unconscious and dreams are important elements of Surrealism, which it took over from psychoanalysis. Max Ernst remains an innovator, experimenting with frottage from the mid-1920s onwards. Hybrid creatures are created from different natural species; his interest in the natural sciences finds expression in his works.

At the First Limpid Word

is one such puzzle. A monumental work, it formed part of the decoration of the house that Max Ernst shared with Paul Éluard and his wife Gala (who later became Dalí’s muse). It was only in the 1960s that the wall painting, which had been painted over, was rediscovered.

The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus (above) is an equally spectacular work, a scandal-provoking painting with blasphemous elements that deconstructs the traditional sacred image of the Madonna, representing a radical liberation from Ernst’s middle class roots.

One room of the exhibition contains a number of key works with the jungle paintings from the second half of the 1930s including

Nature at Dawn

with its dark, sinister character. Different traditions are echoed here, ranging from borrowings from Henri Rousseau to the Romanticism of a painter like Caspar David Friedrich.

With The Robing of the Bride (above) there is not only an obvious reference to Renaissance art but also a more differentiated context. The transformation of a woman into an animal and vice versa is an erotic motif that the painting conveys through a number of details. The Fireside Angel, (above) on the other hand, thematises the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, with which many artists and intellectuals concerned themselves. With the brightly coloured, mask-like, terrifying dimension of its figure, which seems to fly towards the viewer as an unstoppable whirlwind between aggression and mockery, Max Ernst prefigures the political catastrophe that was to befall Europe.

Ernst’s late work displays thematic caesura – on the one hand, a poetical and sensuous contemplation using over-painting in the refined, technically innovative work The Garden of France and, on the other, Birth of a Galaxy, a splendid late work in which air, water, earth and light all rise into a starry firmament.

As a free spirit – ironical, elegant and rebellious – and a man of many different facets, Max Ernst today remains an artist whose work is both accessible and complex. His works speak to us, evoking uncharted depths and hidden mysteries, as well as prompting reflection. Like mercury – which continuously changes shape in a fascinating way, hence being impossible to grasp – Max Ernst is still an exceptional artist almost forty years after his death, exemplary in his artistic independence and possessing an urge for freedom and a bold readiness for innovation in his work and life that preserve his oeuvre from stylistic opportunism and conventionality.

A Fondation Beyeler catalogue in cooperation with the Albertina, Vienna, in German and English, accompanies the exhibition. The edition for the book trade is published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern. The catalogue edited by Werner Spies and Julia Drost includes a foreword by Klaus Albrecht Schröder and Sam Keller, essays by Werner Spies, Julia Drost, Adrian Sudhalter, Raphaël Bouvier, Jürgen Pech, Ralph Ubl, Gabriele Wix and others. The publication comprises 352 pages with approx. 343 illustrations. ISBN 9783906053080, English)

More images from the exhibition:


Max Ernst, The Entire City La ville entière, 1935–36. Oil on canvas, 60 × 81 cm. Kunsthaus Zurich© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: Kunsthaus Zurich.


Max Ernst, Painting for Young People, 1943. Oil on canvas, 60.5 × 76.5 cm. The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin


Max Ernst, Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941. Oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: © 2013, Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence.

Approaching Puberty… (The Pleiades)
la puberté proche... (les pléiades),
Collage, gouache, and oil on paper,
mounted on cardboard, 24.5 × 16.5 cm
Private collection
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich

Ubu Imperator, 1923
Oil on canvas, 100 × 81 cm
Musée national d’art moderne,
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
© 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI,
Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat

Woman, Old Man, and Flower
Weib, Greis und Blume, 1924
Oil on canvas, 97 × 130 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: © 2013, Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York /
Scala, Florence

Max Ernst – Biography

Germany 1891 – 1922
1891 Max Ernst is born on 2 April in Brühl, near Cologne. He is the third of nine children born to
Philipp Ernst, a teacher for the mute and hearing impaired and an amateur painter, and his wife Luise.
1910 – 1914 Studies classical philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and art history at the University of
1913 Participates in the exhibition Rheinischer Expressionismus and briefly visits Paris for the first
time, where he meets Guillaume Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay at the home of August Macke.
1914 Beginning of his friendship with Hans Arp, whom he meets in the Galerie Feldmann in Cologne.
Called up to serve in the artillery in the First World War.
1918 Marries the art historian Luise Straus.
1919 Founds the Cologne Dada group together with Hans Arp and Johannes Theodor Baargeld.
Dada exhibition in Cologne. Max Ernst creates his first collages. Visits Paul Klee in Munich.
1920 Birth of his son Hans-Ulrich Ernst, known as Jimmy.
1921 First exhibition of collages in Paris. Holiday with Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber, Tristan Tzara and
André Breton in Tarrenz (Tyrol).
France 1922 – 1941
1922 Max Ernst moves to Paris, leaving his wife and son behind.
1923 Max Ernst moves to Eaubonne outside Paris with Paul and Gala Éluard, where he takes on the
task of painting the rooms. He exhibits at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris
1924 André Breton publishes his first Surrealist manifesto.
1925 The Parisian art dealer Jacques Viot signs a contract with Max Ernst. The first frottages are
1926 Divorces Luise Straus.
1927 Marries Marie-Berthe Aurenche. Begins his Horden, Wälder, Muschelblumen und
Vogeldenkmäler (Hordes, Forests, Shell-Flowers and Monuments to the Birds) series.
1929 Publication of the first collage novel La femme 100 têtes.
1930 Short role in Luis Buñuel’s film L’âge d’or. Foundation of the magazine Le surréalisme au service
de la révolution. Meets Alberto Giacometti.
1932 First one-man exhibitions in the USA at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York.
1934 Spends part of the summer in Zurich, where he paints a mural in the Corso Bar. Meets the
novelist James Joyce.
1936 Leaves Marie-Berthe Aurenche. 48 of his paintings are shown in the exhibition Fantastic Art,
Dada, Surrealism in New York.
1937 Publication of the essay Au-delà de la peinture in the magazine Cahiers d’art. The special issue
is dedicated to Max Ernst. He paints L’ange du foyer (Fireside Angel). A large number of his works are
confiscated in Germany and one painting is shown in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich.
1938 Max Ernst leaves the Surrealist group and goes to Saint-Martin d’Ardèche in the south of France
with his lover, the artist Leonora Carrington.
1939/40 Max Ernst is interned twice as an enemy alien. He is released after the intervention of Paul
Éluard. He creates many works using the technique of decalcomany.
America 1941 – 1953
1941 Escapes to the USA with the help of Peggy Guggenheim. They travel to California, Arizona, New
Mexico and New Orleans before getting married in December.
1941 Takes part in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition staged by André Breton and Marcel
Duchamp; publication of the magazine VVV. Meets the artist Dorothea Tanning. Develops the
technique of oscillation.
1943 Is divorced from Peggy Guggenheim. Spends the summer with Dorothea Tanning in Arizona.
1944 Max Ernst works in Great River, Long Island, creating a new series of sculptures.
1945 Writes the script for and acts in an episode in Hans Richter’s film Dreams That Money Can Buy.
1946 Moves with Dorothea Tanning to Sedona, Arizona, where they build a house. Double wedding
ceremony in Beverly Hills: Max Ernst marries Dorothea Tanning, Man Ray marries Juliet Browner.
1947 The last major Surrealist exhibition is held at the Galerie Maeght in Paris.
1948 Starts working on the sculpture Capricorn. Robert Motherwell publishes Max Ernst. Beyond
Painting, and Other Writings by Max Ernst and his Friends. Max Ernst becomes a US citizen.
1950 Travels to Europe with Dorothea Tanning. Rents a studio in Paris.
1951 The first German retrospective of his work is shown in his birthplace Brühl on the occasion of his
60th birthday.
1952 Yves Tanguy visits Sedona. Max Ernst delivers a series of lectures in Honolulu.
Europe 1953 – 1976
1953 Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst return to France permanently. He works in the impasse Ronsin
next to Constantin Brancusi’s studio. His poem Das Schnabelpaar, illustrated with eight lithographs, is
published by Ernst Beyeler.
1954 Max Ernst is awarded the grand prize for painting at the 27th Venice Biennale. André Breton
thereupon excludes him from the Surrealist group.
1955 Moves to Huismes near Chinon (Touraine) with Dorothea Tanning. First solo show at the Galerie
1956 Max Ernst becomes a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. The Kunsthalle in Berne devotes
him a retrospective.
1957 Max Ernst receives the grand prize for painting of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Renewed
collaboration with film director Hans Richter for his film 8 x 8.
1958 Max Ernst becomes a French citizen. In September, 40 of his works are included in the
exhibition DADA. Dokumente einer Bewegung in the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle and the Stedelijk Museum
in Amsterdam.
1959 – 1962 Major retrospectives in Paris, New York, Chicago, London, Cologne and Zurich.
1963 Peter Schamoni makes a film about Max Ernst entitled Entdeckungfahrten ins Unbewusste
(Journeys into the subconscious). Two years later he makes a film about Ernst’s life entitled Mein
Vagabundieren – meine Unruhe (My vagabond years – my restlessness).
1964 Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning settle in the south of France (Seillans). He participates in
documenta III.
1966 Becomes an officer of the Legion of Honour. Participates in exhibitions in Venice, Zurich and
Berne. Meets Werner Spies.
1967 Creates colour etchings for a German edition of Samuel Beckett’s From an Abandoned Work.
Produces jewellery for the Galerie Le Point Cardinal, exhibiting designs by Ernst, Arp, Derain, Hugo,
Picasso, Tanning etc.
1968 Designs the set for Olivier Messiaen’s La Turangalîla at the Paris Opera.
1969/70 Major exhibitions in Stockholm, Amsterdam and Stuttgart. The rediscovered murals from
Eaubonne are shown by François Petit in Paris.
1972 Awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Bonn. Participates in documenta 5.
1974 Second one-man show at the Galerie Beyeler.
1975 Travels to New York for the major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which
later travels to the Grand Palais in Paris. Publication of the first two volumes of the catalogue raisonné
of his work. Max Ernst falls ill.
1976 Max Ernst dies in Paris on 1 April, during the night preceding his 85th birthday. He is buried in
the Père Lachaise cemetery. The Kaiserring, the international German art prize of the town of Goslar,
is awarded to him posthumously.