Max Ernst, A Life Well Dreamed by Mary Burton

by | April 06, 2016 | Articles


Max Ernst, “Birds, Fish-snake and Scarecrow” (1921) (fair use)

Born in Germany, Max Ernst (April 1891–April 1976), was an innovative and prolific visionary artist, a survivor of two world wars. His religious and strict disciplinarian Roman Catholic father, an amateur artist, gave him a distaste for authority but a love of art. He suffered traumatic experiences as a German soldier in World War I and was interred as an “undesirable foreigner” in France during World War II. In spite of these traumatic events, he created art throughout his life.  His work was uniquely personal yet had a universal dreamlike quality that was often elegant, disturbing, erotic and sometimes shocking.  A pioneer in both the Dada and Surrealist movements, we can thank Max Ernst and others for paving the way for artists today to freely and uninhibitedly explore and honor their inner selves to create healing, symbolic, expressive, and devotional art.

University trained in philosophy, art history, literature, psychology and psychiatry, Ernst’s incorporated a wealth of European art history references in his work.  Yet, he often mocked artistic and social conventions. One of the early surrealists, he was one of the first artists to apply psychological dream theory to artistic expression of the unconscious. He studied the art of the mentally ill for clues to access the primal mind for the purpose of opening up artistic creativity. He claimed to open himself to images, just as Leonard da Vinci advised artists to do, by staring at a random stain. “My eyes then saw human heads, a battle that ended in a kiss…” (Ernst quoting Leonardo in “Audelà de la peinture”, Cahiers d’Art, 1937)

To that end, he employed artistic techniques used by the surrealist artists to get past the rational mind and access the unconscious as a source of inspiration. These techniques included “frottage” (using pencil rubbings of objects as a source of images) , “grattage” (scratching at the surface of a painting), and “decalcomania” (altering a wet painting by pressing a second surface against it and taking it away). The simplest and perhaps most direct technique is frottage.  An example of one of Ernst’s frottage or grattage pieces is below:


Max Ernst, “Leaf Customs” (1925) (fair use)

Although not a frottage, the piece below was inspired by one of Max Ernst’s most famous frottage drawings:
Eye 001 (1024x745)

Mary Burton, Eye. Ball point pen and flair on paper (1971) (permission given by artist)

Ernst questioned social and artistic conventions created controversial and shocking works, most famously the work below which received a lot of critical press:


Max Ernst, “The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter” (1926) (fair use)

He was notable over his fellow surrealists for his recurring and unapologetic depiction of his bird alter-ego who he described as  “the Bird Superior, named Loplop, an extraordinary phantom of model fidelity who attached himself to my person.” (Rensburg, p. 51) In one striking childhood account, he learned upon awaking that his beloved pet bird had died during the night and his sister had just been born that morning, cementing his connection of birds with humans. (An Informal Life of M.E.) Many of his works have images of birds and people with bird heads.


Max Ernst,  “Birds, Fish-snake and Scarecrow” (1921) (fair use)




Max Ernst “Loplop Introduces Loplop”, Oil and various materials on wood (1930) (fair use)


Max Ernst, from “Une semaine de bonté” (A Week of Kindness), collage-novel (1934) (fair use)

Ernst’s childhood memories of dark and mysterious German forests also became a reoccurring theme in his work.  These works often include Ernst’s alter-ego bird Loplop.


Max Ernst, “The Embalmed Forest” (1933) (fair use)

It could be said that Max Ernst’s bird images have brought to light an ancient and universal force into modern consciousness.  Today, we are familiar with protective humanoid spiritual beings that have human heads and birdlike characteristics, such as angels.  However, powerful bird protector deities were once revered in cultures around the globe, including
  • Egyptian Gods Horus (Falcon), Thoth (Ibis), Maat (Ostrich), and Mut/Nekhbet (Vulture)
  • Ancient Indian God: Garuda, Vishnu’s mount, often depicted having a head with Eagle-like features on a humanoid form
  • related Japanese Hindu-Buddhist Deity Karura, an enormous, fire-breathing creature with human torso and birdlike head
  • Mexican War God Huitzilopochtli (hummingbird)

Apkallu, eagle headed, winged humanoid protector god (anonymous from Nimrud, Mesopotamia) (fair use)

The Egyptian Vulture Goddess Mut (Nekhbet), is a powerful life giving symbol of the Mother and at the same time an iconic symbol of death.  The wisdom of this Vulture goddess regarding motherhood, death, childhood, parenting, and the afterlife lies hidden deep inside her temple walls and awaits those who take the journey. (Amy Auset Rohn)

Goddess Nekhbet (at Kom Ombo temple) (fair use)

For artists and healers, a connection between Max Ernst’s bird alter ego and the loving protector bird headed deities listed above is well worth exploring.  Combined with meditation or shamanic journeying, Max Ernst’s frottage technique can allow images to emerge from deeper levels of being.  These inner landscapes can be used to create further works of art, further our healing, and bring us closer to the protector bird headed gods and goddesses above.

Max Ernst and his life’s work is a testament to healing and overcoming adversity.  He was a member of an important artistic community that spanned two continents and two world wars. Married four times, his third wife was Peggy Guggenheim and his fourth wife was the artist Dorothea Tanning.  His friendship with the artist Hans Arp lasted fifty years. A published author, he is the subject of books, a documentary and a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  His life is a testament to the survival of art and vision, and an inspiration for today’s artists.


Mary Burton (B.A., SUNY Albany; M.F.A., School of the Art Institute of Chicago) grew up on a farm in upstate New York where she was blessed to be immersed in the beauty of nature and life forms.  Observations of light and dark, trees, the seasons and natural phenomena as well as an ongoing quest for meaning inspired explorations of form and line in drawing, printmaking, painting, videography and video image processing. A lifelong searcher and student of mysticism and spiritual sciences, her studies include comparative religions, mysticism, yoga philosophy, and spiritual astrology. She is a graduate of the Life Force Arts Shamanic Training program.  Mary’s artwork has appeared in several LFAE  exhibits including The Creative Soul: Art & The Sentient Being. Mary’s family has been in what is now the U. S. since the 1600’s. Her ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons, was accused and acquitted twice for witchcraft in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts


Sources relied upon for article and additional resources

Max Ernst 1891–1976, Artist Biography (Tate Museum page), published in
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.204,

Max Ernst, The Surrealist Revolution,

Max Ernst, German Painter and Sculptor (year?),

An Informal Life of M.E. from Lieberman, William S., ed., Max Ernst, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1961)

(note: Dr. Rensburg makes the connection between Loplop and Nietzsche’s ‘Obermensch’)
H.J. Janse Van Rensburg, Max Ernst: “The Hundred Headless Woman” And the Eternal Return, Department of Fine Arts and History of Art University of Pretoria (Digitised by the University of Pretoria, Library Services)


Spies, Werner, Max Ernst, Frottages, Thames & Hudson; Revised & enlarged edition (September 1986)

Collection Online | Max Ernst – Guggenheim Museum
Website © 2016 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). All rights reserved.


Max Ernst. (2016, March 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:07, April 7, 2016, from

Surrealist techniques. (2016, April 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from


List of avian humanoids. (2016, March 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from

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