Max Ernst in Germany
Artistic Beginnings and Dada in Cologne

Max Ernst’s early works blend cubist-futurist and expressionist elements. From the very beginning he combined different styles and imageries. After the atrocities of the First World War, his work took a new direction. Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings were a vital source of inspiration. This is evident in works such as Aquis submersus (Submerged by the Waters) from 1919, a representation of how artistic inspiration dives down into unknown worlds.

Max Ernst.die anatomie, 1921

Max Ernst

die anatomie, 1921

© Max Ernst/BUS 2008
Stiftung Hans Arp und Sophie Taeuber-Arp e.V., Rolandseck Foto: Wolfgang Morell 


Max Ernst subsequently abandoned painting to develop the collage technique. Illustrations, often from teaching aid catalogues, were torn from their context and served as material for collages that evoke the feeling of futility in the wake of the War.

For Max Ernst, collage technique is “the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level – and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together”.

In 1919, the Dada group was also formed in Cologne, by Max Ernst, Johannes Theodor Baargeld and Hans Arp. The word “Dada” had been coined in 1916 in a publication from Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Dada was an anti-movement with offshoots in Europe and New York, which challenged norms and utility. The Dada artists wanted to abolish the personal signature, to exploit chance and to integrate mechanics and commodities. The spiritual standpoint of Dada was to regenerate art, life and thinking. They stressed internationalism as a reaction against the nationalist tendencies of the war.

Max Ernst.Kvinnokroppens islandskap, istappar och stenarter, 1920

Max Ernst

Kvinnokroppens islandskap, istappar och stenarter, 1920

© Max Ernst/BUS 2008


Max Ernst returned to painting in 1921. In Celebes and Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) from 1922, he transferred the collage technique to painting. In this way, he could make enlarged versions of the pasted-in pictures and colour them. Painting also obscured the illustrations that had served as his source of inspiration.

In May 1921, on the invitation of André Breton, Max Ernst showed a medley of his indirect techniques from the Dada period from Cologne at the Au Sans Pareil bookshop in Paris: cliché prints, frottages, over-paintings and collages.