As early as 1919, Max Ernst started working with the technique of collage, which he used to design or simulate new pictorial realities. He created his collages from illustrations taken from various novels, textbook catalogues, natural science journals and 19th century sales catalogues. He excised the fragments from wood engravings, using a scalpel in order to achieve cut edges that were perfectly exact and smooth. In around 1929/30 Max Ernst created his most famous collage novels La femme 100 têtes (Hundred-Headed Woman/Headless Woman) and Rêve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (A little Girl dreams of taking the Veil), which are among Surrealism’s most fascinating, enigmatic works.
In around 1925, Max Ernst began his Natural History series, in which he used the technique of frottage for the first time (the French word frotter means “to rub”) as a semi-automatic procedure. He placed objets trouvés he found outdoors, such as leaves and wood, under a sheet of paper and rubbed over them with a pencil. Then he took the structures that emerged and transformed them into fantastic pictures. In his frottages, Ernst breathes new life into lifeless objects, giving them another, to some extent uncustomary, significance. Max Ernst developed frottage while he was staying in Brittany. In his essay Beyond Painting he describes a kind of visionary revelation that caused him to use the wooden floor and other objects in his guest-house room as objects for his frottages.
Grattage is an artistic technique used by Max Ernst in painting that he developed in around 1927 as an extension of frottage. In a first phase, he applied several superimposed layers of paint to a canvas. Underneath the painting ground that he prepared in that way, he placed objects such as metal grids, wooden boards and string, the relief of which could be seen through the canvas. In order to transfer those structures to the picture, he scratched away the top layers of paint (gratter is the French word for “to scratch”.) In a subsequent phase, he reworked the patterns that had become visible, transforming them into forests, flowershells, birds and petrified cities.
Decalcomania is a transfer technique in which the damp pigment on a piece of glass or a sheet of paper is pressed against a canvas, leaving behind fine streaks, bubbles or marbled traces of paint when they are removed. In a subsequent phase, the artist reworks the complex surface structure. This artistic technique had already been developed in the 18th century and was used by other Surrealist artists too. Max Ernst adopted the technique in the late 1930s, using it to represent mysterious landscapes peopled by eery faces, figures and animals hiding in the thickets of nature.
In around 1942, while an exile in the USA, Max Ernst started developing the technique of oscillation. He let paint drip out of a tin perforated with a number of holes, which he attached to a long string and swung to and fro over the canvas. This largely uncontrollable and, once again, semi-automatic procedure created reticulated compositions of circles, lines and points on the surface that were reminiscent of planets’ orbits. Oscillation was an innovative technique that not only extended the range of Surrealism’s artistic repertoire but also heralded Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting.