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Max Ernst
Do you know what the term "frottage" means? How about "grattage," or "decalcomania?" Here's a hint with regard to the last one - we get the word "decal" from it. Of course, in its artistic sense, there's a bit more to it than that (isn't there always?). Frottage is the placing of paper, or sometimes canvas, against another surface then rubbing it with pencil, charcoal, or paint, thus transferring the underlying texture. Grattage is the scraping away of paint from a canvas to reveal underlying colours and textures, either before or after the upper layers have dried. Decalcomania is the painting of a smooth surface (often glass or a special paper), which is then pressed to a canvas surface, thus transferring the original design. The two surfaces are often moved somewhat in relation to one another before being separated, thus creating interesting, random patterns and textures which then suggest scenes or themes which the artist might pursue. All three terms are associated with the German poet-painter-sculptor Max Ernst.

Ernst is credited with having invented both frottage and grattage . Decalcomania was invented by his friend, Oscar Dominguez, but Ernst probably used it more and had greater success with it. In terms of experimentation, Ernst might well be the most inventive artist of the twentieth century. He was born in Bruhl, Germany in 1891. He began his studies in philosophy and psychiatry at the University of Bonn in 1909 only to be absorbed into the German Army during WW I. Disillusioned and outraged at the horrors of perhaps the most unnecessary war in the history of mankind, Ernst became involved in the Dada movement that was already well underway in Switzerland at the time. But, despite its creative energy, the outrageous anti-art proclivities of the Dada movement carried with it the seeds of its own destruction. Ernst's earliest work as an artist, however, was during this era and centred mostly on the Picasso invention - collage.

The early 1920s saw Ernst in Paris where, along with poet Andre Breton and artist Georgio de Chirico, he helped found the Surrealist movement. Surrealism was nothing more than the natural evolution of Dada. It was Dada without the nihilistic impertinence. All too often, when we think of Surrealism, we think only of its poster boy, Dali; but Ernst not only went before that insanely outrageous showman, his work was far more profound - very much richer in textural and abstractionist imagery. His 1934 The Entire City is a catalogue of frottage, grattage, and decalcomania. We're initially aware of the textural patterning of wood and tile flooring, but only briefly as we quickly become intellectually and emotionally involved in the fossil-like patterns at the bottom upon which Ernst has built succeeding layers of "civilisation" toward cleaner, leaner, neater, more structural images above, presided over by a donut-shaped page hole reinforcement ring masquerading as the moon in the grey sky above.

Ernst's The Eye of Silence from the late 1930s is an even more fascinating, more sophisticated example. The painting depicts a lone woman reclining by the shore of a lake surrounded by impossible formations of plants; faces, animals, columns, and towers overgrown with a web of indeterminate character that binds the forms into a single frozen mass. Ernst was self-trained as an artist. His background was that of the philosophical but illogical mind - and ideal foundation for a surrealist. And because he had no formal training in art, Ernst was also free from its constrictions, free to try and fail - which he did quite often. His work is often criticised, in fact, for being uneven. But he was also quite prolific, a trait that often more than compensates for inconsistency.

As might be expected, living and working in Germany and France in the midst of the most turbulent years in the history of those two countries, Ernst's personal life was equally stormy. When Paris fell to the Nazis, he was briefly interned in a concentration camp, from which he escaped. Then, with the help of New York art dealer Peggy Guggenheim, who became his third wife in 1942, he came to the US (it was a mere marriage of convenience). However, unlike many of his fellow art refugees, Ernst travelled all over this country, absorbing the foreign (American) culture, before settling in Sedona, Arizona to wait out the war. Also unlike many of his fellow art refugees, he returned to France in 1954. Ironically, it was there, rather than in the US, that his work attained its greatest prominence. He died in 1976 at the age of 85, perhaps better known for his surreal sculpture (often incorporating painterly elements) than his surrealist paintings, which, unfortunately, always stood in the flamboyant shadow of Dali's endless showmanship.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 January 2002

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