the art of ballOOn-painting

by uwe kurz

Max Ernst (1891-1976)


Max ErnstNo German painter of our century attacked the traditional occidental view of paining  in such a revolutionary way as Max Ernst. None of the other artists made such a lot of many technical inventions, but he ranks nevertheless among the painters of the present, who are internationally not very well-known. Max Ernst, the French-German painter, graphic artist and sculptor, is one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century.

On the 2nd of April 1891, at 9.45 o'clock, had Max Ernst his first contact with the perceptible world, when he hatched out of an egg, which his mother had put into an eagle´s nest, and which had been bred for seven years. This happened in Bruehl, six miles south from Cologne. Here Max grew up and became a pretty child. In his youth there were some dramatic incidents, however on the whole it is not to be called unfortunate,

describes Ernst his younger days. In his autobiographic notes of his first contact with painting, which he learns from his father Philipp Ernst, he continues to report on his days at school:

Without taking any damage on his soul Max gets through the delights and atrocity of the oldfashioned education methods in the seminar exercise school of Bruehl and in the urban High School.

In the afternoons and on the weekends Ernst goes out to discover the environment with crayon, brush and easel: »Straßenbild in Brühl«, »Pingsdorfer Kirmes«, »Eisenbahnunterführung an der Comesstraße«, sketches of farmers and agricultural workers develop as well as watercolour studies of the castle´s park and outlast the time.
    First he studies history of art in Bonn. In 1919 he creates together with Hans Arp the Cologne Dada group. In 1924 he is one of the first members of a group of  Surrealists in Paris, where he lived since 1922. As an autodidact artist, Ernst turns early to the technique of the collage, he combines and alienates pieces of copperplate engravings of the 19th Century to new contexts. Max Ernst discovers the adhesion method in 1920 for himself, when he coincidentally regards the catalog of a Cologne institute for teaching material. The first Dada collages develop. Peaks of his work are his surrealistic collage-novels »La femme 100 tetes« and »Une semaine de bonte«. For Max Ernst the collage is much more than only a medium of style (e.g. like Picasso uses it in his cubistic paintings):

Collage technique is the systematical exploitation of coincidental or artificially provoked meeting of two or more different realities on a level, which may appear unsuitable in addition - and the spark of poetry, which skips during the approximation of these realities,

he defines in 1962 in his biographic notes »Wahrheitgewebe und Lügengewebe«. The collage »Loplop présente«, combined with a Gouache and pencil drawing is in connection with a whole set of other »Loplop« pictures. »Loplop« alias »Hornebom, the bird-superior« is the surrealistic double of Max Ernst. Already in the time after World War I the mysterious bird nature becomes the alter ego of the artist. Loplop loves the undiscovered, loves researchers and pioneers. Loplop Ernst is even a large inventor. He discovers a number of new possibilities to create pictures and texts, which are still used by contemporary artists . With consummate ease and creatively he tests and applies these instruments and methods.
    During this time the paintings, which develop like »Celebes« (1921, Tate Gallery, London) or »Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale« (1924, Museum of Modern Arts, New York), are influenced by the artwork of Giorgio de Chirico. The desire to create an art-style analogous to the automatic way of writing (écriture automatique) of the surrealistic authors leads Ernst in 1925 to the development of a graphic technique, defined by himself as »Frottage«. He rubs the surface texture of objects e.g. leafs or pieces of wood with the help of a soft pencil on a sheet of paper or canvas and thereby he is stimulated to new visionary concepts of painting and drawing. In 1925 the artist discovers this technique as a medium of picture identification and as an intensification of his »visual abilities« and uses it for the first time on the 34 pages of his »natural history«. In this way enormous dream cities develop, in which elements of the vegetative one and civilization one overlap themselves (Die ganze Stadt, 1936-1937, Kunsthaus Zurich).

Frottage is nothing but a technical medium, in order to increase the hallucinatory abilities of the spirit, to awake visions automatically and to get rid of of ones blindness.

Beyond that Ernst experiments with the »grattage«: a thick application of colour is scratched again from the canvas, so that a negative image develops. At the end of the twenties Ernst turns also to sculpturing and creates numerous plastics, influenced by African art (Capricorne, 1948-1964, Nationalgalerie, Berlin).
    Starting from 1938 Ernst belongs to the executive committee of the »Freier Künstlerbund« found by German anti-fascists in Paris and let by Oskar Kokoschka. As a foreigner he is interned in 1939 in France, however he can flee. Pursecuted by the Gestapo, he escapes with the help of some friends into the USA, where he, as a German, is immediately interned again for short time. In 1950 Ernst returns to France, where he dies on 1st of April 1976 in Paris.


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The Frottage

Max Ernst changed the popular play of rubbing coins through a paper with a pencil into a medium of artistic expression and introduced the term »Frottage« for it. The procedure is very easy. A sheet of paper is put on an object with irregular, rough surface and exactly, where the object is situated, one rubbs with a smooth pencil as evenly as possible. The raised parts of the object appear on the paper. A photo shows Max Ernst with a Frottage of an old board, whose grain showes a pronounced relief. The old and eroded sandstone of the cathedral »Freiburger Munster« of was the base for this Frottage, which was rubbed on a black paper for wax crayon. In the comparison one detects the fact that Frottages from rough surfaces and from objects with deep cuts and concavities  hardly show a similarity to the original object. Or in other words: Such objects get a strongly estrangement effect by the Frottage.
    The examples show the great advantage of the Frottage: an easily available medium and a practically execute able procedure at each place when useful material is offered. From this appropriate motive series and rasters can be developed in the form of picture briefcases or picture books. Topics for it could be: The walls of the cathedral or the castle in..., tracks, traces and signs at home, wood and its grain ... In such topical a connection one could also combine the Frottage with the method of the Boyle Family that deals with the coincidence in art.
    With the Frottage of objects like an onion net, which can be put into different forms, an impression of movement and of threedimensional depth can be attained, as it is not identifiable at that object in its extent. With only one onion net also a strip mosaic of different Frottages can be manufactured e.g. with the topic of an increasingly disturbed order. At the beginning there could be an evenly situated net, which is gradually disturbed in the sequences of the following Frottages. The form of disturbance can be determined approximately as a wave, which becomes continuously larger. Another motive could be the layering of several Frottages with the result of a threedimensional penetration of transparent net-structures.


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The Décalcomanie

Marcel Jean describes, how Oscar Dominguez in 1935 -relatively late in the history of the Surrealism- discovered coincidentally the method and procedure of the Décalcomanie:

He distributed opaque colours with a brush on a smooth paper, placed a second sheet on the fresh colour and separated both sheets: the squashed colour created landscapes of rock, underwater and corals. The group took up the new technique with enthusiasm and manufactured with eagerness such Décalcomanies. 'Minotaure' reproduced several of them in No. 8. Breton wrote an introduction to it and Benjamin Péret a fantastic narration, stimulated by the new pictures.

The writers and painters made the results of their Décalcomanies to the subjects of associative interpretations. Dominguez introduced the results of his Décalcomanies unchanged to the viewer for an unrestricted interpretation, but Max Ernst implements his own associations in a conscious and direct pictorial intervention. In a first step he delimiteded and bordered forms in the coincidence amorphous structures by overpainting the rest in sky-looking colours. Max Ernst proceeds in such a carefully manner that the silhouette of the group of trees, determined by the sky, shows the character of the coincidence structure. In a second step he gave the figures a more or less threedimensional shape, e.g. the bird´s head, which is indicated by the red coat as the »bird-superior Loplop«. The painter´s interventions into the coincidence structures, called »Faszinierende Zypressen«, are used so sparingly that one has to take a close look, to discover them at all.
    The Décalcomanies of Oscar Dominguez and Max Ernst differ in the conscious aesthetic or contentwise selection. Dominguez delimitates structures by using templates to get »outlines of lions, windows, grammophons, hands and faces ... structures of rocks, sea or underwater-landscapes« (Marcel Jean). Ernst shows us his associations by the painter´s direct intervention. Dominguez does not intervene into the coincidence structures, he retains the results of the coincidence for the viewer, who is not able to realize Dominguez´ previous selection. In contrast the elaborated Décalcomanies by Max Ernst seem as his own artistic statement.


reference: E. Brügel: Praxis Kunst Zufallsverfahren , Hannover (Schroedel), 2000
translated by Uwe Kurz


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