Thursday, 31 January 2013

Max Ernst : Frottage

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter, print maker and sculptor.

Ernst is reputed to have discovered frottage in 1925. It is hard to believe that not a single person had ever thought of doing this before but certainly Ernst is credited with introducing it. He was attracted to the grains of wood in floorboards and traced the patterns by placing paper over them and rubbing them with graphite. He then interpreted the shapes and textures in the image produced and drew into it.

He published a collection of frottage works called 'Histoire Naturelle' in 1926 which included images of forests, animals and other subjects(1). For example - "The Fugitive" click here which looks like a bizarre large-eyed fish. A further image here looks appears to be a large wooden horse.

What was the background to Ernst's approach? 
Ernst became part of the Dada movement largely as a result of negative experiences while serving in the German army during the first world war(2). Stephen Little says of the Dadaists." They proclaimed that all received moral,political and aesthetic beliefs had been destroyed by the war. They advocated a destructive, irreverent and liberating approach to art."(3). They favoured activities involving change - for example, Arp produced collages by gluing fragments wherever they happened to fall on a page. The Dadaists were interested in the role of the unconscious in the creation of art. This led on to the development of surrealism, a movement of which Ernst became a part.

The Surrealists were concerned with unlocking the unconscious to release untapped creativity. Andre' Breton advocated automatism in the first surrealist manifesto in 1924. This was the practice of drawing or writing without any preconceived idea of what you are trying to achieve requiring the following:
"Put yourself in the most passive or receptive state you can. Detach yourself from your genius, your talent and everyone else's talent or genius"(4)

Ernst believed that frottage was a type of automatism. Other techniques in a similar vein which he employed for similar reasons were 'grattage' in which textures and patterns were made by rubbing and scraping off layers of paint, and 'Decalcomania' in which impressions were taken from liquid paint and then figurative elements by over painting. This was used for the textures of vegetation and rock. (4). An example of decalcomania can be seen here in "Europe After the Rain".  Examples of grattage can be seen in " The Whole Town" which is included in the Drawing 1 course notes and in numerous forest paintings Example 1 Grattage Example 2 Grattage Forest and Bird.

Although the frottage and related techniques involved a certain amount of chance and subconscious activity, the images were in many cases developed further by selective drawing and over painting to create something figurative. Later on in his career, Ernst experimented with a painting technique using pain dripped from a swinging can of paint. This is similar to the work of the action painters - abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock took automatism a step further as no conscious effort was made to find a figurative image by over painting. (1)

Reference Material:
(1)Surrealist Art. Sarane Alexandrian: World of Art Book Series. Thames and Hudson.
(2)Ernst, Max: Biography. Friedeike Mehlau-Wiebking: Oxford Art Online
(3)Dadaism In '...isms: Understanding Art'. Stephen Little. Herbert Press. London
(4)Automatism. Ian Chilvers. The Oxford Companion to Western Art via Oxford Art Online.

Other surrealist artists including Federico Castellon also used Frottage in their work.
I was interested to see that one of the works shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize last year involved the use of frottage (see the link Below) which received a special commendation from the panel of Judges. The piece is a drawing of an architectural model and is part of the artist's exploration of the relationship between the real and the artificial.

Jane Dixon: Platform - Jerwood Drawing Prize Shortlist 2012

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