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Max Ernst and His Controversial Rubbings

Todd Powelson
"Europe After The Rain" - 1942

Imagine some strange bird/horse/human hybrid escaping from the forest and dancing through modern city streets. A sight for sore eyes! This is what I imagine when I look at Max Ernst’s “The Fireside Angel”. And then, when done with it’s dance, the city is overgrown with moss and coral. This is what “Europe After the Rain” looks like. I love these paintings and, in my humble opinion, Max Ernst is one of the the greatest artists of the 20th century. I am fascinated by Max Ernst, the artwork he made, the techniques he used, and the lives he touched.

"The Temptation of St. Anthony" - 1945

Max was a German painter and sculptor, and one of the founders and pioneers of both the Dada and Surrealist movements. The techniques he used to create his images are also very interesting. He invented the graphic technique called frottage, where he would use a pencil or other drawing tool to make a “rubbing” over a textured surface like wood or a leaf, and use the “rubbings” as a source of inspiration for images and drawings (Anna tells me the term frottage also means to rub yourself against another person in a sexual way. Didn’t know that…). Max also experimented with another technique called decalcomania, where he’d press paint between two surfaces to create unexpected shapes for inspiration and a basis for further refinement (this technique was used to help create the linked image “Europe After The Rain”, “Temptation of St. Anthony”, and “The Anti-Pope”).

"The Anti Pope" - 1942

Another technique that he also used a lot, and I’ve borrowed and used from time to time in my own artwork, involved flinging a string that had been soaked in paint across a canvas as a way of drawing and creating unique shapes (as seen in “The Kiss” below). He also experimented extensively with collage. Gotta love Max Erst and his innovation!

Max also led a very interesting and, sometimes, very difficult life. He was involved with the fantastic artist Leonora Carrington, until he was arrested by the Nazi’s and held in a concentration camp for creating “degenerate art”. He was eventually released but, when the Nazi’s occupied France, Max was arrested again by the Gestapo. With the help of Peggy Guggenheim, a well known American patron of modern art, Max was able to escape and flee to America. Max and Peggy were married for a short time after he made his escape, but it didn’t last. Max eventually moved from New York to Beverly Hills, where he met and married another incredible surrealist painter, Dorthea Tanning. The two moved to Sedona, Arizona because Max said the landscape matched up with his surreal landscapes. They eventually moved back to France, where Max lived until he died in 1976.

Another fun fact! You will notice that Max Ernst uses birds quite a lot in his artwork. This is an alter-ego he named “Loplop”. The bird symbol evolved from his childhood belief that humans and birds belong to the same species. I guess one day his pet bird died, and an hour later his younger sister was born. He must have felt that his bird was reincarnated in his sister or something.

Whew, maybe more history and background than expected, but I have never met a painting by Max Ernst I didn’t enjoy!

"The Kiss" - 1927
Todd Powelson
Todd Powelson works as a Graphic Designer, Illustrator, and Visual Artist.

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