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The Dadaistic Life of Max Ernst

Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation. – M. Ernst

Dadaism was a movement of the grotesque, absurdity, and an expression of the modern world meaninglessness. Not only paintings, sculptures, and poems artworks, but the life of artists was an artwork itself.

Max Ernst’s life wasn’t an exception.

Early life

Maximilian Maria Ernst was born in 1891 in Bruhl, Germany as the third of nine children in a strict middle-class Catholic family. His parents were devoted Christians who were raising their children to be religious, God-fearing and capable individuals.

His father was an amateur painter and he introduced painting to Max at an early age, which will further determine his life path.

Philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry were areas that first interested him, so he went to study it at the University of Bonn.

He was visiting asylums and got fascinated with the artwork of mentally ill people. But he abandoned this studies because he realized that he had more interests in the arts, claiming that his interests included anything connected to painting.

Love for Painting

His love for painting was the main reason he decided to dedicate his life to it.

In the earliest days of his painting career, he met works of the most famous artists of all time, such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Cezzane and Picasso, who influenced Ernst’s further work.

His favorite themes were fantasy and dreams, and he adopted an ironic style that juxtaposed grotesque elements alongside Cubist and Expressionist motifs.

War and Dada

After finishing his studies, Ernst was forced to join the German Army in World War I as a part of the artillery unit, so he was directly exposed to the drama of warfare.

The war was ruinous for this young soldier, but inspiring for him as an artist. He became highly critical of western culture and these charged emotions directly fed into his vision of the world as irrational – an idea that became the basis of his artwork.

Memories of the war and his childhood helped him create absurd, but interesting scenes in his artworks. In 1918, after returning from the war, he took painting seriously.

With Jean Arp, a poet and an artist whom he met before having to go to war, he formed a group of Dada artists in Cologne.

They edited journals and created a scandal by organizing a Dada exhibit in a public restroom. More important are his collages and photomontages he started making in 1919.

His collages represent an important phase of Dadaist art.


He was using different materials in creating collages, such as illustrated catalogs, photographs of various animals, drawings etc, which resulted in creating somewhat futuristic images.

One of these compositions is Here everything is still floating (1920), a startlingly illogical composition made of cutout photographs of insects, fish and anatomical drawings ingeniously arranged to suggest the multiple identities of the things represented.

He approached descriptive expression with his collages. Besides that, a three-dimensional spatial perspective and dreaming illusionism of Giorgio de Chirico heavily influenced his work.

Adjustment to his take on Chirico’s style moved him away from Arp’s plain drawings and provided a transition that later became an illusionist branch of surrealist painting.

Arp’s and Ernst’s attempts to reach “beyond painting” – Arp with his low, painted and machine-cut reliefs, and Ernst with his collages – don’t represent an attempt of anti-art, as much as a response to feeling that the pre-war art was too hermetic and aesthetic.

Their work made a base for painting-poetry that lived through Dadaism and inspired quarter century of Surrealism.

Ernst’s unique masterpieces enabled him to create his own world of dreams and fantasy, which helped him to heal his personal issues and trauma.


In the 1920s, Surrealism occurred.

In 1922, Ernst moved to Paris where he became a founding member of the Surrealists, the group that gathered artists and writers whose work outgrew from the unconscious.

In 1923, Ernst finished his Men Shall Know Nothing of This, known as the first surrealist painting.

He was one of the first artists to apply The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud to investigate his deep psyche to explore the source of his own creativity.

In 1929, he started using techniques of decalcomania – transferring paint from one surface to another by pressing the two surfaces together, and frottage – pencil rubbings of the things such as wood grain, fabric or leaves, to stimulate the flow of imagery from his unconscious mind.

These techniques resulted with the accidental patterns and textures that made the artist contemplating free association to suggest images he subsequently used in a series of drawings (Histoire naturelle, 1926) as well in many paintings such as The Great Forest (1927) and The Temptation of St. Anthony (1945).

Ernst gained quite a reputation despite his strange style.

Also in 1929, he turned to collage again and created The Woman with 100 heads, which represents his first collage novel.

Not long after, he created the collage novels A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1930) and A Week of Kindness (1934).

After 1934, his attention was oriented towards sculpture, where he was using improvised techniques just as he did in painting.

For example, Oedipus II (1934) was cast from a stack of precariously balanced wooden pails to form a belligerent-looking phallic image.

Moving to the United States

At the beginning of World War II, Ernst moved to the United States. There he joined his third wife Peggy Guggenheim, who helped him to break through American art scene, and his son, American painter Jimmy Ernst.

While living there, he concentrated on sculptures such as The King Playing with the Queen (1944), which shows the influence that African culture made on him.

He helped to form American art during the middle of the twentieth century, thanks to his ingenious and extraordinary ideas that were different from those of other artists of that time.

Ernst’s obvious denial of conventional styles and imageries in painting was what fascinated American artists.

New and innovative ways of painting interested young American artists, so this unique style of Ernst gained the attention of painters who became familiar with his work.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning playing chess with figures that are Ernst’s creation


In his later years, he divorced Guggenheim and married Dorothea Tanning, a surrealist painter who lived in Sedona, Arizona.

They were traveling to various places to learn more about different art techniques. The couple settled in France in 1953. A year after, Ernst received the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious awards contest.

Max Ernst died in 1976, in Paris, only a day before his 85th birthday. His legacy lived on as he was inspiring artists throughout the world.

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Dadaism – The Negation Of Art At Its Finest


As a reaction to World War I, a little something called Dada – the artistic and literary global movement – arose in 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland. The name came during a clandestine meeting when two German poets stuck a paper knife into a French-German dictionary.

In that clearly inspired moment, the word “dada”, which in French means “hobbyhorse”, was randomly chosen. It echoes the first words of a child, and these associations with childishness appealed to the artist, who wanted to create distance between themselves and conventional society.

And – guess what? It worked!

Before we get into the history of Dada, here is a more recent clip to show you, in case you already had doubts, that it isn’t exactly a long-forgotten art movement.

Origins Of Dada

In the night club Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, poet Hugo Ball brought together artists who, through the absurd and idea of coincidence, fought against logic and reason.

Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that, “Until now, nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it.”

With those perplexing words, Ball presented his Dada Manifesto on the first public Dada party.

Soon enough, rebellious ideas of Dadaism had spread through Europe.

Key figures in the movement included Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, Francis Picabia, Richard Huelsenbeck, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Man Ray, Hans Richter, Max Ernst, among others.

Dadaist performance brought down the boundaries that separated the different art practices, because visual artists, musicians, writers, poets and actors worked together to propagate these absurdist notions.

Senselessness for these artists has become a tool which were supposed to shake the audience out of its bourgeois serenity and conventional ways of thinking.

Artists attacked the rational-minded, which they blamed for being the cause for creating a “deviant” people who are responsible for the horrors of war.

“Dada is not modern at all, it is rather a return to a quasi-Buddhist religion of indifference. Dada puts an artificial sweetness onto things, a snow of butterflies coming out of a conjurer’s skull. Dada is stillness and does not understand the passions.” -Tristan Tara

Dada movement wanted to overthrow the political, moral and aesthetic values of the society and that through anarchy bring down bourgeois order.

Through the nonsense artists hoped that they would produce a tabula rasa (blank slate) and, on the way, set a new foundation for understanding the society and the world around it.

“We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa.” – Marcel Janko

Have a look at this piece, called “Relief Concert” by Jean Arp, who is one of the best-known Dadaist visual artist, famous for his abstract collages…

How To Write Dada Poem

Dadaist songs were written by pulling words out of a hat. The artists recite their poems, in unusual primitive cardboard costumes and masks, accompanied by arrhythmic drum strokes.

Sometimes the different verses of a poem simultaneously were read in the same language or the one song were read in several languages in the same time.

The point was in the random intertwining of words.

If you want to see how Dada performances looked like, but also to hear the recitation of Dadaist If you are inspired, you can also write your own Dadaist poem by recipe of Tristana Tzare:

Take a newspaper.

Take a pair of scissors.

Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.

Shake it gently.

Than take out the straps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.

Copy conscientiously.

The poem will be like you.

And hire are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

To this day, artists are still using methods like this to influence their art. It might be said that English recording artist Radiohead’s early 2000’s album Kid A is a product of dadaist thought, since they apparently wrote the lyrics by tossing words and phrases into a hat.

If you listen closely to the words, you can even tell…

Dadaism in Berlin – Spirit of Dada

Ok, where were we? After the war ended (WW1), many artists left the Zurich and Dada in this city was extinguished.

In Germany, the consequences of the war had led to class conflict in 1919 which were initiated by communists.

In post-war Berlin, Dada became less anti-art and adopted a more political stance.

Artists were political activists, and they created the political art statements. Some of them, such as George Grosz and John Heartfield were members of the Communist Party.
Raoul Hausmann was known as a leader of the Berlin Dadaists, and was most recognizable for his use of language and photo montage. Those works are a visual counterpart to the Dada sound-poems that were heard at the Cabaret Voltaire.

Also, in his work, we see a new approach to experiencing the sculpture.

He has been collecting various items that were considered as garbage and merged them into a new relationships through which he sent a message about condemnation of materiality, and the loss of personal identity and individuality.

Freud’s Theory Of The Unconscious As Inspiration

Dada in Cologne looked up to the Berlin movement but was never quite so political.

Freud’s theories of the unconscious intrigued artists who were drew into their works figures from the mechanical, and human forms.

Max Ernst through dream theories investigate his deep psyche in order to explore the source of his own creativity.

He organized exhibition in one pub in Cologne (because The Association Of Artists refused to present his work) and encouraged visitors to smash up certain exhibits and provided them with a hammer to do so, enlisting their participation in the anti-art spirit of Dada.

Bitter much?

Have a look at “Sacred Conversation” by Max Ernst, eg. art by a guy who gives people hammers to smash other art.


Across the Ocean – The New Dadaists

New York was popular center for artistic exiles during the war. Dadaism movement was formed around Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. At that time, the word dada is never used to describe their art.

It was later applied because their spirit was similar to one which was conceived in Zurich.

New York Dada was quiet, without such political activism. It was focused on a reconsideration of art’s essence. Importantly, it was carefree and funnier then European Dadaism, which is observed on the humanoid machines in Picabia’s paintings.

The highlight of the Dada movement in New York is Duchamp Fountain. He took over items from everyday life and put them into new contexts, which are provocative and which raise the question, “What is art?”

This unassuming urinal, filtered through Duchamp’s Dadaist eyes, became artwork and statement of mocking conventional fountains, which is generally perceived as a symbol of tradition and fine arts.

Which fountain you like better, is it Duchamp’s on the left, or this Baroque fountain on the right?

Dada was (is) a form of artistic anarchy that challenged the social, political and cultural values of that time. Do you qualify as a torch bearer of the Dadaist spirit? Read the following phrases either aloud or to yourself, and decide if you want to align yourself with the movement.

No one has to know, do they? Just you and us.

Dadaism denies art.

Dadaism denies itself.

Dadaism is nothing!

We leave you with this…

“DADA, as for it, it smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing.” – Picabia