Max Ernst (1891-1976)
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
Une Semaine de Bonté, 1933 (engraving based on collage)
Max Ernst explored a wider variety of Surrealist techniques than any other artist. As Surrealism was originally formed as a literary movement, one of the problems for artists was to find Surrealist processes that were specific to the visual arts and not simply adaptations of literary techniques.
Collage and photomontage had already been used to dramatic effect by Ernst when he was a member of the Cologne Dadaists. In the context of Surrealism it proved to be the perfect medium to awaken what Ernst called 'the most powerful poetic detonations'.  Consequently he produced a series of Surrealist collage novels including 'Répétitions' 1922, 'Les Malheurs des Immortels' 1922, 'La Femme 100 Têtes' (One Hundred Headless Women) 1929 and 'Une Semaine de Bonté' (A Week of Plenty) 1933, a page from which is illustrated above.
The images in these novels were cut and pasted from an assortment of popular scientific and literary publications. Cuttings from the likes of Gustave Doré's illustrations of 'Paradise Lost' and Jules Mary's bourgeois melodrama 'Les Damnées de Paris' were combined in bizarre and irrational relationships. Ernst's choice of sources, however, were not simply random. They represented the repressive Victorian/Edwardian era of his childhood and his collage books were a provocative assault on its authoritarian society. To enhance the subversive power of his imagery, Ernst had each collage recreated as a line engraving to make them look more like authentic illustrations of the time. As you turned the pages, the juxtaposition of images from different contexts stunned your normal cultural response and stirred the depths of your 'unconscious mind'.
Ernst also developed the techniques of 'frottage', 'grattage' and 'decalcomania' to create 'automatic' textures. He would use these as an imaginative source of imagery by staring at them to discover the extraordinary surrealistic creatures and landscapes that lay hidden within.
Frottage (from the French, 'frotter' meaning 'to rub') was the technique of taking a rubbing from a textured surface, like the childhood pastime of creating an image of a coin by covering it with a sheet of paper and rubbing with a pencil.
Grattage (from the French, 'gratter' meaning 'to scratch') was another 'automatic' technique that explored the after-effects of scraping wet paint from the surface of a canvas.
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
Europe after the Rain II, 1941 (Decalcomania: Oil on Canvas)
Decalcomania was one of Ernst's more dynamic techniques. This effect is clearly illustrated in his painting of 'Europe after the Rain II'. Its elaborate surface was created by pressing fluid paint between two sheets of canvas and peeling them apart to reveal a luxuriant texture. Ernst would then search this complicated mass for familiar shapes much in the same way that a psychologist would use the 'Rorschach inkblot test' to extract meaning from an 'automatic' response. Once he had unearthed some recognizable figures that formed a subliminal narrative, he would enhance their details manually. Finally he would edit the overall composition by painting out the negative shape of sky to liberate the 'unconscious' image that was hidden within its entangled form.
MAX ERNST (1891-1976)
Detail of Europe after the Rain II, 1941 (Decalcomania: Oil on Canvas)
'Europe after the Rain II' is Max Ernst's scathing commentary on World War Two in Europe. It is an apocalyptic vision of the aftermath of war; a scorched world of rotting remains that are inhabited by the deformed shapes of man and beast. A woman with her back to us stares longingly at the distant horizon grieving for her lost world, her calcified body eternally anchored to this barbarous terrain. A sentry wearing a bird mask helmet and holding a spear stands guard beside her, an ironic symbol of the 'great European New Order' that Hitler proclaimed in a speech of January 1941 (the year of the painting) at the Berlin Sportpalast.
Ernst experienced the devastation and futility of war having served on both the Western and Eastern fronts in World War One. In his autobiography he dealt succinctly with these harrowing events, 'On the first of August 1914, M E died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918'. 
'Europe after the Rain II' is an 'unconscious' visualization of all wars: no idealistic outcome, no victor's spoils, no winners. All that remains is a ravaged world and a scarred humanity whose new guardian now wears a different mask. When interviewed about the relationship between dreams and reality in his work and the strangeness of the images he produced, Ernst replied "If painting is a mirror of a time, it must be mad to have a true image of what the time is. Who made world history? Not the most reasonable people, the madmen did......Through one madness we oppose another madness."