Thursday, May 22, 2008


Ricki Laird
Mr. G
English 12H Period 5
20 May 2008

Being one of the founders of Dadaism and Surrealism, Max Ernst was one of the most influential contemporary artists in his time that created several paintings, collages, poems, and even a graphic novel. Ernst was born on April 2, 1891 in Bruhl, Germany, which is situated near Cologne, the town where Dada, an artistic movement, was first formed. At the Bonn University, Ernst studied philosophy and psychology in 1909, but soon dropped the courses. Before that, he visited an asylum and studied the work of the insane, a study inspired by Freud's theory of the unconscious (Daily Guggenheim Museum). The work of the insane was crucial in his development as an artist, for in manic states, one is supposed to have an assortment of ideas:

  • For example, the birth of new ideas often takes place during the manic phases, but the refinement of such thoughts may occur during the artist's melancholic periods. The creative process requires a certain amount of emotional involvement as well as a more logical perspective in order to put the new ideas into practice. (Jamison Myth or Madness? Mania and the Artistic Genius)

He also took many ideas incorporated in Freud's works and used them to try to identify himself and like other surrealists, used it as a basis of surrealist works.

Max Ernst's life was a one filled with great opportunities as well as grave misfortunes. He was enlisted as a German soldier during World War I. Feeling horrified by the way the world was going, Ernst joined the Dada group in Cologne. The Dada movement was a passive protest against the war (Spies 16). It used several new techniques in the approach of art and rejected norms associated with modern art. Ernst describes his experience as a Dadaist painter, and the meaning of Dada art: "Being a Dadaist by profession was a contradiction in terms. There was no such thing as an unchanging state of revolution. And to put the spirit of Dada on exhibition was no more than a weak illustration, like trying to capture the violence of an explosion by presenting the shrapnel" (Spies Max Ernst: A Retrospective). With the Dada movement, Ernst began experimenting with new techniques such as frottage and producing collages. He once explained in an interview his methods when creating a Dadaist collage piece: "I decided then to investigate the symbolism of this obsession and, in order to aid my meditative and hallucinary faculties, I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing them, at random, sheets of paper which I undertook to rub with black lead" (Solan The Enduring Significance of the Work of Max Ernst). Ernst also made several lasting friendships including Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Jean Arp, and others, some of which he collaborated with and even made movies.

Surrealism began in the late 1920's as it branched off of Dadaist work. Surrealism involves the "element of surprise", unexpected juxtapositions, and non sequitur, for comical purposes (Ades Surrealism). Surrealism incorporated Freud's work and study of the conscious and unconscious mind. Surrealism became an important aspect to Ernst's life in his artistic career.

Ernst's relationships with people seemed to be either good or bad. Phillip Ernst, his father, had been a painter himself, yet Ernst's relationship with him wasn't a steady one. Young Ernst resented his father, and used him as a subject of his paintings and connected him with Freudian ideals. Ernst also had problems with marriages. He met Luise Straus in Cologne, and the couple had a son who was born in 1920, the artist Jimmy Ernst. The marriage did not last very long however. He was married four times until Dorothea Tanning became his wife while living in America until death.

Ernst was not only a revolutionary artist, but he also had great ideas in order to pursue "the myth of the creative genius." After his bird died the same night his sister was born, Ernst had several thoughts of resentment, and even blamed her for taking his pet's life force. Years later, Ernst creates 'Loplop', a bird-man creature who essentially was Ernst's alter ego. Not only did 'Loplop' become Ernst's voice, but in his autobiography titled Biographical Notes, also known as Tissue of Truth, Tissue of Lies, Ernst writes about his experiences in third person, a technique inspired by Freud's revealing of one's on self by understanding the unconscious (Drost 24).

Max Ernst's life, as one can see, was full of hardships, confusion, inspiration, and love. He is recognized as one of the most influential artists, and credited for many techniques and ideas still used today. However, he is not given enough credit pertaining the true meaning of surrealist art and his use of the unconscious as a way to perfect the craft of his skill. His art continues to be an inspiration to other artists.

Max Ernst was an active participant of the ideas that surrounded both Dadaism and Surrealism. Many of his works incorporated these ideas and these pieces also contained Ernst's emotions and parts of his unconscious mind. Surrealist paintings such as 'Oedipus Rex', 'The Elephant Celebes', and 'Fireside Angel' are all pieces of the surrealist and Dadaist movement. All these paintings hold another common trait: all incorporate Ernst's emotions as well as his thoughts and Freudian concepts. Ernst had greater plans of his own when focusing on art: "Yet Ernst stated intention is to sacrifice his own conscious authority. This study explores the contradictions and ambiguities of authorship in an art of the unconscious" (Kavky 367). Ernst wanted to go beyond modern art and create work that would truly expose his unconscious mind by using art. Through these paintings, speaking in third person in "Biographical Notes", and studying Freud, Max Ernst created surrealist paintings not only to express rejection of modern art, but to expose the myth of the creative genius.

Sigmund Freud was one of Max Ernst's greatest influences. While studying psychology, Ernst read Freud's work, mainly pertaining to dreams as subconscious desires. Ernst, along with others, believed one's unconscious could be revealed through works of surrealism. Ernst however, took this idea several steps forward. He worked toward the goal of "exposing the creative genius" using several techniques inspired by Freud's work. Ernst psychoanalyzed himself through art. Psychoanalysis takes years to uncover the unconscious. Ernst spent his entire life psychoanalyzing himself with paintings, writing, poetry; all forms of art. Not only was he creating art with certain messages, but he was also trying to decipher his own unconscious mind.

With an analysis of his life, one can begin to see what areas Ernst was concerned with. From the beginning, young Ernst held responsibility as being the oldest child. Everything he and his younger family members did, he took the praise and blame (Drost 21 - 22). Ernst's father, Phillip Ernst, was a painter himself, who became an influence on Ernst, yet his relationship with his old man was an uneasy one. His father was a fierce authoritarian of the Roman Catholic Church. Once young Ernst tried to convince his father he was the child Jesus. He made a connection to his father as being a symbol of the heavenly "father", thus playing as Jesus was a mockery (Hughes Max Ernst: The Compleat Experimenter). However, it is clear that Phillip gave Ernst the initiative to take up painting. In Ernst's "Biographical Notes", he describes himself questioning his father about the painting of the forest, which becomes a strong childhood memory. Freud's ideas coincide with Ernst's questioning of his father's painting as being the "father-son conflict" (Drost 24). Ernst made several pieces which held the fatherly figure, often holding evidence as a referral to his relationship with his father: "Ernst thought of his father as a fool. The man with the turned-up mustache was not just a Sunday painter, but one with a heavy academic style; Ernst's entire career was a rejection of the middle-class idea of art for which his father stood" (Jones The Guardian).

One painting which could connect to Freud's father-son conflict in which Ernst endured is "Oedipus Rex". It is named after the famous play by Sophocles in which the tragic hero Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, then blinds himself when he apprehends what he has done. In Freudian studies, the "Oedipus" complex occurs when a boy unconsciously envies and wants to displace his father to attain all the affection from the mother. In Ernst's painting, there is more than the "Oedipus Rex" story being portrayed. In Ernst's painting, a large hand protrudes an opening in a brick wall. The fingers are being pierced by several contraptions and simultaneously squeeze a nut. Two bird's heads are on the right, one has horns in which a string is attached, another against a fence; both are facing the opposite direction of the hand. In the background, the sky is empty except for a tiny balloon floating in the distance. All the details in this piece hold great significance, including Freud's ideas and the unconscious mind of Ernst. The entire painting revolves around Freud's idea of "joke work", which is an object representing something non humorous or in a juxtaposing way creates the joke. For example, the fingers which hold the nut represent the ironies of seeing and blindness in Oedipus Rex. The nut and pierced fingers also represent what may be sexual attachments, a feature associated with the Oedipus complex. The male hand cracks the female "nut", which resembles female sexual organs. To analyze further, even the position of the fingertips resemble the breasts of a woman. This is a representation of Freud's Oedipus complex, but could refer to Ernst's own unconscious. "Ernst took a non extraordinary image and, unexpectedly, brought out its dreamlike qualities" (Stokes 200). Freud stated in his work that the two main purposes of making jokes is to express hostility and sexual desires in situations where direct expressions of these emotions would be deemed unacceptable. "The window is, like the joke, the hole punched in this wall of resistance. Unexpectedly, the feelings come out, like the oversized fingers, in a form of a joke that contains the repressed feelings in a cleverly, if not completely, disguised form. The Joke maker safely exposes himself" (Stokes 201). The two birds in the painting also juxtapose the balloon in flight. The fence around one bird and the strings on the horns of the other represent lack of freedom, birds being the usually symbol of freedom now suppressed to the ground while far away a balloon takes flight. Ernst's personal symbol is the bird; therefore, the painting may symbolize Ernst's own repressed feelings which connect to the Oedipus Complex. Ernst's relationship with his father definitely contributed to his ideas, "Oedipus Rex" being one, as well as the unconscious he was so eager to uncover. His father was not the only influence; several other life experiences completely altered his method of philosophy.

During World War I, Ernst was enlisted in the war, which caused an interruption as an artist. He even wrote at the beginning of his autobiography, "Max Ernst died the 1st of August, 1914. He was resurrected on the 11 November 1918 as a young man who aspired to find the myths of his time" (Solan The Enduring Significance of the Work of Max Ernst). Seeing the horrors and transformation of Europe at the time, Ernst decided that the traditional approach to art was no longer up to date. He decided to join other artists in the Dada movement, a movement which protested the war and the way Europe was being operated at the time. "The aim of 'Dada' was to ridicule the art that dated back to before 1914 and was abhorrent to the postwar generation" (Russell Max Ernst: A Retrospective). Most of Ernst's Dadaist works are collages, a mixture of different materials to create one piece. The Surrealist movement came shortly after the Dada period, in which Ernst also became a part of as well. Surrealism involved dreamlike images or hallucinations and incorporated Freudian ideals such as the mystery of the unconscious. One particular piece Ernst completed integrated both Surrealist and Dadaist methods; "The Elephant Celebes" is one of Ernst's most famous pieces that also hold fragments of his unconscious that pertain to Europe and the war.

"The Elephant Celebes" at first glance is a bizarre image featuring what looks to be a mechanical Elephant in which a headless naked woman presents. The background consists of an almost empty sky other than the two fish, the figure, and smoke. Ernst uses dull, almost grey tones for the sky and background. In fact, Ernst barely uses any vibrant colors at all, minus the contraption on top of the massive figure. The "creature" has horns protruding from its side along with a pair on its head. It has a silver apparatus attached to the "trunk" which then seems to extend to the inside of its body. Three vertical objects surround the main subject, one slender with a rounded tip, another small and royal blue, and the last a rigid pole which resembles a hat rack. A small hole exists in the middle of the monster. Next to the beast is a pale naked, female, mannequin without a head. The exposed figure raises its arm toward the beast, and it wears a surgical glove. The surgical glove is a common symbol in surrealist paintings, often relaying surrealism's theme of being out of place. "The Elephant Celebes" is quite intriguing and may trigger an assortment of questions. It combines Dadaist collage methods as well as Surrealism's dreamlike sense. Ernst once said pertaining to the collage effect: "It is the systematic exploitation of the coincidental or artificially provoked encounter of two of more unrelated realities on an apparently inappropriate plane and the spark of poetry created by the proximity of these realities" (Walther 608). In essence, artwork such as "The Elephant Celebes" is an attempt of self analysis for Ernst. The piece has a low horizon line which emphasizes the enormity of the beast. The figures rounded body resembles a clay corn bin used in the Konkombwa tribe in southern Sudanese. The body and the totem pole to the right of the beast's horns suggest African origin. "The painting uniquely combines found imagery and tribal elements" (Jeffett International Dictionary of Art and Artists). African rituals and tribes connected to the idea of primitivism. This was a cultural aspect of Dada, "an attempt to return to an authentic origin prior to the decline of modern society" (Jeffett 865). Ernst was a man opposed to great changes, especially during and after the World War I. Therefore, elements which symbolized primitivism such as the totem pole and elephant were incorporated into the artwork. Elements such as the headless nude woman wearing a surgical glove were common aspects found in many surrealist pieces. The idea of "unreason" is the usual meaning of such symbols, but they could also symbolize other ideas. Surrealism pertains to many artist's dreams and desires. The headless woman could have been a symbol for the desire of sex, therefore, the thought of women being only useful for one thing. This could also allude to the degrading of women in Freudian concepts. Yet the mannequin could also allude to the myth of the abduction of Europa by Zeus disguised as a bull (Klingseohr-Leroy Surrealism). A connection here is "Europa" which means Europe, the setting of the war and of course, Ernst. Another dreamlike image is the "flying" fish in the top left. What looks to be an oncoming airplane appears to the right, and there is smoke in the sky. The mechanical aspect of the piece is a more modern criticism, and the enormity of the creature could represent Ernst's prediction of a large scale modern decadence. These aspects allude to the "mechanical terror of the war experience" (Jeffett). Therefore, "The Elephant Celebes" is Ernst's memories and dreams of the terror and destruction that wreaked havoc on Europe, and he successfully alludes to these ideas using mythology, history, and Freudian aspects.

Another painting in which Ernst reveals his thoughts and emotions pertaining to the war is "Fireside Angel". At first glance, the painting is of a beastly bird creature that seems to be rampaging throughout a vast landscape. The beast is painted with many vibrant colors, the head being a white with tints of yellows and browns, arms and part of body a red – orange, one leg orange, the other a dark blue, one arm forest green, the other a burnt orange, the veil between its legs an orange cream color, and the strange appendage which resembles a smaller beast a forest green. The creature is made up of several parts; a closer look reveals it comprising of different human and animal parts, much like the mythical beast, the Chimera. The head of the creature resembles that of a bird with long, jagged teeth. Its eyes, pose, and facial expression seem to reveal glee. Its right foot, left to the viewer, has a hoof as a foot, while the other resembles a shoe. Ernst's brush strokes are very loose, and it seems to create a wave – like image on the beast, as if its garments were flowing in the wind. The creature doesn't seem to take on any familiar shape or form, and seems to flow with the wind. The creature attached to the main one has no familiar shape as well. It seems to be an amorphous figure, with a hand that has seven fingers. The shape is almost like fire, no real shape, or even resembling water, or wind. The shapes, colors, and artistic aspects of the intriguing "Fireside Angel" all have a meaning in which Ernst wished to portray. The painting was actually an interpretation of what would happen to the world after the war: "The Fireside Angel is a picture I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain. This is, of course, an ironical title for a kind of clumsy oaf which destroys everything that gets in the way. That was my impression in those days of the things that might happen in the world. And I was right" (The Legacy Project). The title is ironic because "Angel" refers to a holy being of God, but the painting suggests a malevolent being of destruction: "Ironically naming this frightening beast an "angel', Ernst evokes the danger of the seemingly innocuous, referencing the surface appeal of fascism but underscoring the evil he perceived in its proliferation" (Kessler The Harvard Advocate). "Fireside Angel" was Ernst's prediction of a world gone wrong under fascism.

In his later years, Ernst ascribes reason to nearly every aspect to his work. He attributes this knowledge of his own unconscious to Freud. For example, many of his paintings such as 'The Robbing of the Bride' have half-man, half-bird characters within them. Reasoning behind such creations is the childhood memory of his little sister being born the same night his pet bird dies, "a coincidence to which he describes later 'confounding the images of human beings with birds and other creatures. The bird part is a symbol of freedom, and free will, while the human part represents the superego, focusing on control" (Foster No Man's Land). The memory of his beloved bird dying also inspired paintings which incorporated the bird-man creatures with women, which Ernst interpreted as the unconscious feeling that his sister took the very life force from it. The most elusive of all the bird-man creations was 'Loplop'. 'Loplop' became the role of the superego, a term used by Freud that describes an individual's conscience that opposes the id's need to satisfy desires. 'Loplop' became the artist's "voice", a reflection and projection who assumed responsibility for Ernst's work (Spies 9). 'Loplop' was in fact, a first step in uncovering the myth of the creative genius.

The mythical bird-creature 'Loplop', the private phantom, became Max Ernst's constantcompanion, indeed, his mouthpiece, Loplop was the messenger of an ironically critical separation of the "creator personality", a detached observation of his own activity, in which Werner Spies recognized the Freudian superego (Drost 25). Therefore, Loplop serves as a symbol of the artist's production and mind, allowing Ernst to interpret himself. Self analysis also developed through his writing, particularly Biographical Notes, also known as Tissue of Truth, Tissue of Lies.

Ernst's autobiography Biographical Notes contains perspective on his life experiences, in which he reworked until his death. However, the autobiography is entirely written in third person. In his work, he completely avoided the possessive 'I' or 'my', and escaped into the impersonal 'he' (Spies 9). Reasoning behind his method of writing is a further reflection of himself, his id, ego, and even superego: "This detachment from his own ego reflects something crucial. It is a skepticism which is to be met with everywhere in the oeuvre, a skepticism fueled by a post-Freudian awareness of the impossibility of disposing over a secure, clearly defined "self"" (Spies 9). These Freudian ideas were essentially the spark that started the surrealist movement: "Surrealists argued that we see only a surface reality. More important was uncovering the reality that, as Freud maintained, resided in the deep seated secrets and desires of the unconscious mind" (Davies 993). Ernst deeply believed in uncovering the unconscious, which is why he worked throughout his entire life as an artist to uncover his deep seated thoughts within the unconscious, the part which remains unknown to most for their entire lives.

In conclusion, throughout Ernst's life, his experiences, and endeavors have given him influence on his work as an artist. Unconscious thoughts and feelings emerge from the result of these experiences and are transferred in the form of art. The myth, in which Ernst worked his whole in pursuit of, is the process of taking one's own ideas to try to duplicate their "vision" of the completed work, and how one's experiences subconsciously contribute to a final piece. Creative process requires a certain amount of emotional involvement. Ernst understood and believed in the works of Freud; therefore, Ernst studied his own unconscious mind in order to expose the myth of the creative genius, that is, his own reasoning behind his artwork.

Works Cited

Ades, Dawn. "Surrealism", The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001. Grove

Art Online. Oxford University Press, 2007. Apr 23, 2008.

Davies, Deny, Hofricter, Jacobs, Roberts, and Simon. Janson's History of Art. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Person 2004.

Drost, Julia. "Biographical Notes." Max Ernst: Life and Work. Ed. Werner Spies. New York: Thames & Hudson 2006: 21 – 30.

Ernst, Max. "Biographical Notes." Max Ernst: Life and Work. Trans. John W. Gabriel. Ed. Werner Spies. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Ernst, Max. Ed. Stuart Solan. "The Enduring Significance of the Work of Max Ernst." Rev. dir. David North. World Socialist Web Site. 1 Oct. 1998. 23 Aug. 2008.

Ernst, Max. Ed. Werner Spies. "Max Ernst: A Retrospective." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Foster, Hal. "Blinded Insight: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill." No Man's Land. Summer 2001. 22 Apr. 2008.

GuggenheimMuseum. Ed. Meghan Daily. 2001. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Fondation, New York. 16 Apr. 2008.

Hughes, Robert. "Max Ernst: The Compleat Experimenter." TIME. Apr. 12 1976. May 3,9171,914031,00.html?iid=chix-sphere.

Jeffett, Williams. Ed. James Vinson. International Dictionary of Art and Artists. Detroit: St. James Press, 1990.

Jones, Jonathan. "Pieta or Revolution by Night, Max Ernst (1923)." The Guardian. 23 June 2001. April 25,,740302,00.html.

Kavky, Samantha Beth. "Authoring the Unconscious: Freudian Structures in the Art of Max Ernst." University of Pennsylvania. Aug. 2001.

Kessler, Ryder. "Review of Max Ernst: A Retrospective." The Harvard Advocate. 2006. Apr 26.

Klingseohr-Leroy, Cathrin. "Surrealism." Köln ; Los Angeles : Taschen, 2004. Apr 23 <>.

The Legacy Project. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Paris, 2000. Apr 25.

Russel, John. "Max Ernst: A Retrospective" The Metropolian Museum of Art June 2005.;hwwilsonid= H2ELXHC3FWYD3QA3DIMSFGGADUNGIIV0.

Solan, Stuart. "The Enduring Significance of the Work of Max Ernst." Rev. dir. David North.

Spies, Werner. "Max Ernst: Life and Work: Directions for Use." New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Stokes, Charlotte. "Collage as Jokework: Freud's Theories of Wit as the Foundation for Collages of Max Ernst." Leonardo. Vol 15. PergamonPressLtd. Summer, 1982. April 24

Walther, Ingo F. Masterpieces Of Western Art: A History Of Art In 900 Individual Studies From The Gothic To The Present Day. Köln ; New York : Taschen, 2002. Apr 25.

Works Consulted

"Ernst, Max (1891 – 1976)." Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age War and Reconstruction. Ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006. p. 974 – 976.

Gibson, Jennifer Ann. Surrealist Early Maps of the Unconscious. University of Virginia, 9 Dec. 1986.
Michelson, Annette. "Max Ernst: Sculpture and Surrealism." New York Times. 6 Mar. 1966. Apr. 25. 9199422.

Naylor, Colin., Ed. Contemporary Masterwork. St. James Press 81. Janis, Harriet, "Artists in Competition: Eleven Distinguished Artists Compete in a struggle with the Temptation of St. Anthony." Arts and Architecture, April 1946. Russell, John. Max Ernst: Life and Work, London & New York 1967.

Urton, Robin. "Surrealsim." EyeconArt. 2003. 25 Apr.


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