Max Ernst in France
In the Surrealist Circle

In 1922, Max Ernst moved to Paris and lived with Paul Éluard and his wife Gala, who later married Salvador Dalí. His friends included André Breton and Breton’s literary circle, who were inspired by his proto-surrealist paintings, such as Piéta ou revolution la nuit (Pietà or Revolution by Night), Sainte Cécile (Le piano invisible) [Saint Cecilia (The invisible piano)], Ubu Imperator (Emperor Ubu) from 1923 and Weib, Greis und Blume (Woman, Old Man, and Flower) from 1924.

Max Ernst.La Vierge corrigeant

Max Ernst

La Vierge corrigeant l´enfant Jésus devant tres témoins: André Breton, Paul Éluard et le peintre, 1926

© Max Ernst/BUS 2008
Museum Ludwig, Köln
Foto: Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln



In October 1924, André Breton published his “First Surrealist Manifesto”. Dream notation and texts generated by “écriture automatique” (automatic writing) or under hypnosis gave access to the unconscious, which could be used as a source of inspiration for a liberated perception.

The translation of the poets’ automatic writing into visual art triggered a new experimental phase in Max Ernst’s artistic career. He developed new techniques, including frottage. This method involves placing a sheet of paper on a richly textured surface and rubbing over the paper with a pencil. These textures evoked visions that Max Ernst interpreted and developed. In 1926, a graphic portfolio, Histoire naturelle (Natural History), was published with a selection of his frottages.

Max Ernst also experimented with combining frottage and oil painting. He called this grattage. The method involved scraping off layers of paint on canvases placed on various textured surfaces. In this way, he created a series of fishbone forests, mussel flowers [e.g. Fleurs de neige (Snow Flowers) from 1929] and bird monuments.

During his prolific years in France, he created the collage novel La femme 100 têtes (The Hundred-Headed Woman) in 1929 as well as petrified cities and landscapes, with a dense, virgin forest vegetation that engulfs the scenery.

Max Ernst.La Vierge corrigeant

Max Ernst

La ville entière, 1935/36

© Max Ernst/BUS 2008
Kunsthaus Zürich


In 1937, Max Ernst’s art was branded as “entartet”, degenerate, in Nazi Germany. The same year, he painted L’ange du foyer (Fireside Angel), as a reaction to the Fascist takeover in Spain. When the Second World War began in 1939, he was interned in southern France several times, but he managed to emigrate to the USA in 1941.