Visit to the Max Ernst Museum, Brühl

During initial explorations into texture early on in the Drawing Skills course, I encountered frottage, a technique developed by Max Ernst (1891-1976).  I am ashamed to say that, even though I knew that the Max Ernst Museum was just “up the road” in Brühl (a 20 minute train ride away), I didn’t visit it and did all my research on the internet…There is something about having things on your doorstep and never making the effort to go and see them… I visited today, initially to see an exhibition of William Copley’s work.  The latter will be reviewed in a separate post.  After looking at the Copley, I went upstairs to view the permanent exhibition of Ernst’s work.

When you enter the first room, one of the first things you see is Im Garten der Nymphe Ancolie, a mural painted in 1934 for the Dancing Mascotte in the Corso theatre in Zürich.  After extensive restoration lasting over a year, the work has found its way to Brühl where it is on loan.  The work itself is striking – the delicacy of the underlying outlined image contrasting with the boldness of the surface hues which swim over the surface.  Ernst arrived at the image after leafing through a book of botanical plates. One of these he inverted through 180 degrees.  The image was then distorted by stretching it to form the basis o the mural.

There was too much to absorb in one visit and I chose to focus mainly on frottage, which is a technique I would like to use in my own work but since those early exercises have not done so.  Most of Ernst’s frottage in the museum is found in one room.  Unfortunately, the museum has a “no photography” policy so I could not make a visual record of my visit. I have found a few images on the Bridgeman Edcuation website, which OCA students are permitted to use in their learning logs. I cannot be certain that the originals are to be found in the museum.  However, the chosen images are good illustrative examples.

The first frottaged drawing that I saw today is a small image called Sonnenpassagiere (Sun Passengers).  I cannot track down an internet copy of it, probably because it is not one of the most striking of his works. However, it interested me to consider how the image had been created. Ernst appears to have used a frottage as a basis and then superimposed a geometric design on the surface.  Differences in pressure have been applied through the image, and in places it looks as if layers have been built up, which together produce a complex image despite its size.

However, this was just the start. When I turned around, I saw that the opposite wall was filled with Lichtdrücke (collotypes).  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1), this printing technique gives accurate reproduction because the image is not broken up into dots.  This makes it a useful technique for finely detailed images, such as are needed for book illustrations.  I have never tried to make a collotype so can only try to make sense of what I have read in a couple of reliable sources. It appears as if the image is imprinted onto a glass plate coated with gelatine by exposing the plate to a negative.  When the plate is washed, the gelatine absorbs water and swells.  The plate is inked while still damp and the gelatine that has not yet hardened repels the ink, creating highlights, while the hardened gelatine accepts it, creating areas of tone (2).  Parts of the gelatine create a fibrous network which creates mid-tones in the final image. From this, I assume that the gelatine absorbs water only where it has not taken up the image and it is this that accepts the ink. I am not sure how the artist controls what is to be highlight and what is mid-tone. It cannot be a random process (?).

This series of collotypes is called “Naturgeschichte” (Natural history) and was created in 1926. It is a wonderful series of monochrome images using a wide variety of frottage elements, often different woods.  It was interesting to see how a rubbing of a wood surface can be used to create not only an image of wood but also of leaves, hair, sand after the tide has retreated, the hide of a rhinoceros… Wood was used to draw leaves and leaves were used to draw trees!  Sometimes frottage covered most of a page, leaving negative space – a hole the size and shape of a leaf. There is one lovely image comprised of horse chestnut leaves and what appears to be a horse chestnut in its shell – but which must have been created with a somewhat less spiky surface. Together these have been used to create the image of something resembling a dragonfly (is the image called an Ernstbug?).  I have found a link to the image here but this does not do it justice.

Another image from the collotype series is linked here.  An excerpt from a documentary featuring the artist at work on the series can be seen on youtube.

Below are two frottaged images that are not collotypes and which are not, as far as I know, in the Museum’s collection but which illustrate well how frottaged textures can be integrated into semi-representational drawing.

“When the light spreads” (pencil rubbing, 1925)


“The Petrified Forest” (charcoal on paper, 1929)


The theme of this latter image had already been used in an oil painting of the same name (1927) that employs the technique of grattage (scratching into paint). This painting is in a private collection.  Max Ernst survived as a soldier in the First World War. These images echo those of devastated battlefields.


In the next room, a further stunning series of illustrations appear also to be frottage but these were then made into photograms by Man Ray for publication.  They appear to have been made with white chalk on black paper and I have made notes to this effect while in the museum.  I usually check such things but may have surmised that this is how they were made originally from their appearance – an alternative could be that these are negative images.  However, they were produced, they are beautiful.

“Illustrations from Mr Knife and Miss Fork by Rene Crevel, published by Black Sun Press, Paris, 1931”




Unrelated specifically to frottage but something I had not known about, are Max Ernst’s D-paintings (info in German only at this link).  Painted over more than 30 years, beginning in 1942, these paintings were annual gifts to Dorothea Tanning, who became his second wife in 1946. (His first brief marriage to Peggy Güggenheim seems to have been a marriage of convenience to allow him to immigrate into the US as he escaped internment in France in 1941). The paintings are in different styles and document his development as a painter over long period. They get their name from the letter D present in each one.  I am not known for my romanticism but I can appreciate this for a romantic gesture!

Prior to this visit, my knowledge of Max Ernst’s work had been limited to frottage and grattage, as well as some of his more famous paintings and sculptures.  What I had not appreciated was the extent to which he experimented with techniques and styles throughout his life, how he never stood still and but continuously invented and developed as an artist.  Another technique developed by Ernst but not mentioned above is decalcomania.  I found another youtube link that demonstrates how this is done.

Here is (yet another) youtube link as intro to the Max Ernst Museum –  a brief virtual tour.  Max Ernst left Brühl for Paris while still a relatively young man.  He never came back to live there.  When he returned to Europe from the US, it was to live in Paris again, where he eventually died. I wonder what he would make of the museum in Brühl?

Sources:    Accessed 17.10.12   George Eastman House: Notes on Photographs – Collotype.  Accessed 17.10.12

All images a courtesy of


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