Max Ernst: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wondered how someone would paint dreams? In this lesson, learn about artist Max Ernst, a pioneering member several creative art movements that focused on the unconscious and absurd. A veteran of World War I, Ernst channeled his experience into unique works of art that provoked new thinking about what could be portrayed on canvas.

Early Life

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was born in Germany to a strict religious family. In 1914, he entered college to study philosophy and psychology, but decided instead to pursue art. Although he took art history classes, he never formally studied studio art, instead teaching himself different techniques. He also was interested in the art of those with mental illness and what it conveyed about the unconscious. Ernst was drafted into World War I and fought in an artillery regiment, putting him in the middle of the conflict. He continued to exhibit artwork while he served in the military, but the war experience left deep psychological scars.


In 1916, Ernst got involved in Dada, an artistic and literary movement that rose in Europe as a reaction to the horror and brutality of World War I. Many of its practitioners, like Ernst, had experienced war firsthand.

It is easier to describe what Dada was against than what it was for. It mocked nationality, reason, religion, authority, and ideologies. In short, it was rebellion about everything, and artists courted controversy by doing things like staging events in public restrooms. Dadaist art featured fantastical and absurd images and objects. In one exhibit, Ernst made a sculpture and put an axe beside it, inviting audience members to destroy it. Ernst and other Dadaists also experimented with processes such as collage (gathering scraps of paper and other materials and assembling them to make a new object or image).


In 1924, Ernst helped found Surrealism, an art movement that grew out of the Dada movement. Surrealism focused on exploring dream states and the subconscious mind. Surrealist artists were greatly influenced by famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and his ideas about dream analysis. They created works that used recognizable forms and objects but mutated them and used them in otherworldly settings.

The Elephant Celebes, painted in 1921, reflects both Dadaism and Surrealism and is considered one of the earliest Surrealist paintings (Ernst completed it even before the Surrealism movement was officially established). In it, a corn storage bin has been turned into a horned monster. It is black, metal, and menacing. In the lower right corner, a headless female nude torso beckons. Other strange objects populate the edges. But what does it mean? The viewer can read into it any number of dreams and nightmares.

The Elephant Celebes, 1921
The Elephant Celebes

In other works, Ernst experimented with pencil rubbings to create textured surfaces, a process he called frottage. He also made images by transferring paint from one surface to another by pressing two surfaces together (think of smashing together the pages of a book after you put paint on them.) An example of him playing with textures can be found in The Wood, painted in 1927.

The Wood, 1927
The Wood

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