A founding father of Dada and surrealism, the German artist Max Ernst played a defining role in early twentieth century European art. A poet, graphic artist, painter, sculptor, and graphic designer, Ernst dabbled in a number of fields integrating each into his unique, modern, and imaginative personal style.
Born in 1909, Ernst served in the German army during the First World War. Later on he described it in his autobiography, A Not-So-Still Life, “Max Ernst died the 1st of August, 1914.” Returning from the war a changed man, Ernst traveled to Cologne where he joined Jean Arp and Alfred Gruenwald founding the Dada movement. A leader in the Dada movement, Max Ernst was pushed throughout his life by his own creative ambition. Ernst would go on to experiment with new techniques, pioneering the modern, creative, avant-garde styles that defined the European art world between the world wars.
Most well known for his outrageous subject matter, Ernst utilized surrealist techniques to express prevalent, reoccurring themes and issues, both in his own life and those of the world around him.
The Second World War was a very different experience than the first for the artist. In the minds of the rising Nazi powers, Ernst was considered a degenerate artist because of his outlandish, unrealistic portrayals of the world around him. In the pre-war years Ernst was detained in an internment camp in the south of France for a short period. He was again arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and would have suffered a frightening end if Peggy Guggenheim, a major patron of the modern artists, had not interceded on his behalf. The Nazis for their “inhuman” method of artistic expression targeted modern thinkers, and a number of Ernst’s colleagues and friends suffered much more tragically than he had under the reign of the Third Reich.
The frightening circumstances, in which the artist lived, as well as those of many others, can be seen in the frightening imagery of Arizona Frieze, completed in 1948.
A gift of Nicolo Pignatelli, through the Ackerman Foundation, this monumental bronze triptych, Arizona Frieze is most certainly abstract, but unlike his other pieces, it incorporates a sense of the natural world. Ernst alludes to the works of southwestern Native American rock art through the utilization of form, shape, line, texture, and a medium, which appears like rock.
Living with his wife of the time, Dorothea Tanning, the shape of the figure, and the fish-like object serve as a poignant and observant compilation of the natural world that surrounded the artist during his brief time in Arizona in 1948. Produced at the peak of his mainstream art career, Arizona Frieze represents the surrounding natural environment and the simplistic forms he witnessed in the native art of the southwestern region of the United States.
Ernst’s career flourished with his creative and historically irreplaceable works of art, none of which appear quite as different and unique as Arizona Frieze. An honor to display, as well as an important addition to the university’s collection, Arizona Frieze exemplifies the breadth and history inherent in St. Lawrence University’s permanent collection.