Mental Floss

The Purest Surrealist: Max Ernst

Andréa Fernandes

Max Ernst was born on April 2, 1891, and died just one day short of his 85th birthday, on April 1, 1976. At the request of readers Peter and Lauren, today's "Feel Art Again" post features the German artist, who is considered by some to be the "purest surrealist painter." (Shown above is his 1943 "Vox Angelica.")

1. During the First World War, Max Ernst was conscripted into the Germany army to serve as an artillery engineer. The traumatic experience prompted Ernst to write in his autobiography, "Max Ernst died the 1st of August, 1914." Ernst further emphasized his point by writing, "You cannot save a man who has already been dead. And I had been dead since the first 'World War.'"

2. Apparently, Ernst first got drunk at the tender age of 2, when he drank the dregs from his father's wine. The young boy was discovered in the garden, pointing at trees and saying, "Look, they're going round."

3. Ernst was quite the ladies' man. He married Luise Straus, an art historian with whom he had his son Jimmy; Marie-Berthe Aurenche, who supposedly inspired some of his more erotic work; Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector and dealer; and Dorothea Tanning, a fellow artist. Between his marriages to Aurenche and Guggenheim, Ernst had a relationship with Leonora Carrington. Carrington suffered a severe mental breakdown when Ernst fled Nazi-controlled France for America, leaving her behind. (Guggenheim assisted him in his flight.)

4. Although Ernst's dad was an amateur painter, Ernst himself had no formal artistic training. He was inspired to become a painter after seeing a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit. Yet despite Ernst's lack of formal training, he is considered one of the foremost surrealist painters; his "Les Hommes n'en sauront rein" (1923) is considered by many to be the first surrealist painting.

A larger version of "Vox Angelica" is available here. Fans should check out Max Ernst Masterpiece; Frederick Sommer's portrait of Ernst; the collections of Ernst's work in the Met, the MoMA, Art in the Picture, the AIC, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Tate, and MuseoThyssen; NGA's exhibition of Ernst's illustrated books and its Dada student guide; and this video on Ernst's life. Current Exhibition:Max Ernst: Dream and Revolution (Denmark: through June 6, 2009) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.