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Maximilian Ernst, the second child of seven, was born in 1891 to a devoutly Catholic professor at a school for the deaf. He lived in Brühl, a small town in Germany, where he studied until 1908 when he entered the University of Bonn. As a student, he travelled by bicycle across Germany and Holland and became interested in the new science of psychiatry, fascinated by the art produced by the patients in a local asylum.
In 1911, Ernst met August Macke who invited him to participate in the important Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon (First German Autumn Salon) of 1913. The same year he visited Paris for the first time. Mobilised at the outbreak of hostilities, Ernst spent four long years in the artillery, where he still found time to paint intermittently. Given leave in 1918, he married Louise Straus, an art historian at the Walraff-Richartz Museum in Cologne. Their son Jimmy was born in 1920.
Demobilised and living in Cologne in 1919, he came into contact with assorted Dadaists like Klee and Arp and discovered the work of de Chirico. This contact with ‘subversive elements’ caught his imagination and his collaboration with T. J. Baargeld for the Dada journal Der Ventilator was banned by the British military authorities. Invited to participate in an Artists’ Union show at the Cologne Museum for Decorative Art in 1920, their art was considered shocking and unacceptable and removed before the opening. Their Parisian counterparts expressed their sympathy by inviting them to show their work in Paris – a brave gesture in the post-war anti-German climate. The enthusiastic reception of the French convinced Ernst that he belonged in Paris (with or without a visa) and warm friendships ensued with the nucleus of artists and poets who became the Surrealist movement.
In 1923, he participated in the Salon des Indépendants and then travelled to French Indochina with the poet, Paul Eluard and his wife, spending several months in Saigon. On his return to Paris, he met Jacques Viot who was handling Miró and Arp. Finally, at 34, Ernst could devote himself to his art without having to supplement his income. In 1926, he had his first big show at the Galerie Van Leer and joined with Miró in the design of sets and costumes for the Diaghilev ballet Romeo and Juliet.
Ernst married Marie-Berthe Aurenche in 1927, moving from Paris to Meudon (they divorced in 1936). The following years saw numerous shows including his first show in New York in 1931. Always controversial and still a German citizen, the Nazis put him on their list of proscribed artists in 1933. In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art in New York devoted a show to Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, which included 48 paintings by Ernst - double the number of works by any of the other artists.
When war broke out again, Ernst was interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Freed then re-arrested, he eventually escaped and got himself to Marseille where he met Peggy Guggenheim who helped him get away from the Gestapo to Lisbon and thence to the U.S. where they were briefly married. By 1943, he was already travelling with the painter, Dorothea Tanning, whom he married in 1946 settling into Sedona, Arizona where they built a home. In 1948, he became an American citizen.
Travelling to Europe in 1950 gave him the opportunity to revitalize his friendships with Eluard, Arp, Giacometti and others. In 1953, he moved back to Paris with Dorothea. At the Biennale of 1954 in Venice, the triumvirate of Arp, Ernst and Miró took the grand prizes for sculpture, painting and graphics respectively. At this point, well into his 60s, Ernst’s fame continued to grow.
By 1959, Ernst (now a French citizen) was the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée d’Art moderne in Paris. In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art in New York prepared a carefully selected and catalogued retrospective that travelled to Chicago and to London. Accolades, international shows and honours continued to flow. In 1965, Ernst was made an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour.
Max Ernst passed away the day before his 85th birthday in 1976.