February 23, 2004


Max Ernst is one of my favourite artists. Many of what are, to my eyes, his most fascinating canvases were produced in the late 1930s and early ‘40s using a technique called ‘decalcomania’.

'The Entire City' by Max ernst, oil on canvas, 1935-6.
Just like collage and frottage, it [decalcomania] was simply a perfected form of a well-known children’s game, the ‘blotting’ game. Here the method was to pour diluted black gouache on to a sheet of white paper of a certain texture, covering this with another sheet and then execising uneven pressure with the hands, in order to spread the gouache. The result, always unpredictable, is a highly contrasted composition in black, grey and white, in which one can discover landscapes, profiles or heads, composite animals, [or] unknown plant life. […]Max Ernst conceived the idea of trying the experiment directly on a canvas, with oil paint reduced to a suitably fluid state. What began as a mere game suddenly seemed to him to offer rich possibilities… - Patrick Waldberg.
'The Fascinating Cypress', by Max Ernst, oil-on-canvas, 1939.

The Spanish painter Oscar Domínguez had been the first surrealist to use such a technique, in 1936. In Ernst’s hands, decalcomania ‘gave rise to a considerable number of works full of exuberant vegetation, totally imaginary landscapes, and chimerical figures.’

'Epiphany' by Max Ernst, oil-on-canvas, 1940.

Ernst’s painting Epiphany, above, dates from 1940, from the midst of a turbulent and hazardous period in his life. With the outbreak of war the year before, Ernst, as a German national resident in Paris, had been arrested and interned. He was later released, but was re-arrested and interned a second time in 1940. The German forces’ push through France threatened to overrun the camp at Les Milles where Ernst was detained. The artist was one of 2,500 inmates whose lives, it was thought, would be imperilled should the Germans arrive there, and were thus evacuated by way of a chaotic train journey toward Bayonne. Further misadventures followed, until his release was secured thanks to the combined efforts of several of his friends, and he was brought to the relative safety of Marseilles. Ernst still felt unsafe in Vichy France, and made plans to leave for the US.

'The Harmonious Breakfast (at Santa Monica)' by Max Ernst, oil-on-canvas, 1941.

First, though, he had to get out of France, and it was at this juncture that his use of decalcomania may have saved his life, when, at the Franco-Spanish border his passport was deemed invalid, and was confiscated by a suspicious French station-master. Even so, Ernst decided to proceed to the Spanish customs-hall, where he was made to unpack a parcel containing several of his finished and unfinished canvases, some framed, some rolled-up…

'Totem and Taboo' by Max Ernst, oil-on-canvas, 1941.
Fortunately, they were in the decalcomania technique. As this is a technique which gives the impression of well-finished, elaborate work with rather dark colours, an exhibition was at once improvised in the customs hall. The customs officers were enchanted [...] There remained the (French) station master. He asked Max to go with him to his office. There he said ‘Monsieur, I adore talent, and you, sir, have great talent. I admire it.’ Then he gave him back his passport and led him to the platform, on either side of which a train stood waiting to go. ‘This one’ he explained, ‘is the one going to Spain. The other one will be returning to Pau, the nearest préfecture’ and he added: ‘Be very careful not to take the wrong train.’ After which he very kindly went back to the passport-control office. [...] Max Ernst, of course, took the advice the station-master had not dared to give him more explicitly: he took the wrong train and ten minutes later he found himself in Spain, on his way to Madrid and Lisbon.
First of two details from 'Europe After the Rain, II' by Max Ernst, oil-on-canvas, 1940-42.

Upon his arrival in New York, Ernst was detained again, on Ellis Island. Once again, he was fortunate to have influential friends to vouch for him, and help secure his release.

Second detail from 'Europe After the Rain, II' by Max Ernst, oil-on-canvas, 1940-42.

The images above are scans from my copy of Edward Quinn’s 1977 monograph about Ernst. The quotations, also, I excerpted from this book. Click on the images to see them much enlarged.

Posted by misteraitch at February 23, 2004 12:15 PM | TrackBack


"As the sheets separate, paint adheres to both the top and bottom, forming ridges between the papers. With increasing distance between the papers, the paint ridges coalesce and a branching pattern appears. As more and more ridges coalesce, a dendritic fractal forms."

Fractal Decalcomania.

Posted by: Wally Glutton on February 23, 2004 07:21 PM

Uncanny. Haunting yet beautiful in a wistful way. Thank you, for posting this extraordinary artwork.

Posted by: Jeffrey Barnett on November 15, 2004 09:03 PM

Yes, I love this period of his work.
I think that Max Ernst covered every area of modern art even more than Picasso, and a lot of times better.

Posted by: Alistair IW Campbell on December 9, 2004 12:42 AM
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