Surrealistic wives of Max Ernst
All women in the life of this German artist were as extraordinary as himself. A muse of Surrealist artists,
a French aristocrat and artist Marie-Berthe Aurenche,
an English-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington
, a famous American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and a daughter of Swedish emigrés,
artist Dorothea Tanning
… Max Ernst
attracted the strong,
the courageous and the extravagant ones.
A lot of ladies were charmed by Ernst who could hardly be called a handsome man. Yet, there was something amazing about that lean, slender man. The bizarre inner world, the mystical tension of the images and ideas of Dada and , which he splashed on his canvases, the desire for freedom of the spirit, and finally the notorious "charisma" - all of this fascinated those with imaginative nature.
For a long time,
studying philosophy in the University of Bonn,
could not decide on a trajectory of his life. A young man took his final decision in favour of painting after visiting the exhibition of Parisian artists in Cologne. Max Ernst joined the left-wing Young Rhineland group,
which included modernist artists,
became friends with the artists August Macke
and Robert Delaunay
, the French avant-garde artist Guillaume Apollinaire and Hans Arp
, an artist and poet rolled into one. Absorbing all the latest trends in art,
he was looking for himself,
his own style and direction.
The end of the war, in which Germany was defeated
, was marked by a significant event in the life of a young and still wavering artist from the suburbs of Cologne: Max Ernst married Luise Straus — a well-educated and successful art historian.
Luise Straus with her Dadaist friends: (
from left to right) Emil Nolde
, Max Ernst,
Richard Straus and Johannes Theodor Baargeld. 1919 (photo source
A graduate of the University of Bonn, Ernst’s fellow student, Luise Straus upheld a thesis in 1917, and later was accepted as a research associate in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Luise knew the artistic world of Cologne full well. In her apartment there was a salon, where the Dadaist artists gathered. As Louise wrote in her memoirs, "the convenient location of our apartment contributed to the fact that we became the life and soul of a society of young artists who were making plans on how to build a new world during endless tea parties."
Preparing for his Munich exhibition, scheduled for 1919, Ernst got into collages. His wife gave lectures, proclaiming to be the best form of expressing proletarian culture. And just before the opening of The First International Dada Fair in Berlin in June 24, 1920, Max and Luise’s son, Hans-Ulrich, was born. The Ernsts liked to give each other nicknames: the father of the family was called Dadamax, the younger Ernst — Jimmy, and later — Minimax. While wars reshaped Europe, Dadaism reshaped art and gradually declined.
In the summer of 1921,
the Ernsts were on vacation in Tarrenz,
Austria together with Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp
and his wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp (
a future famous artist). They were waiting for the arrival of the poet Paul Éluard and his Russian wife,
who later became worldwide famous as the wife and muse of Salvador Dalí
by the name of Gala. Back then,
the meeting didn’t take place.
Max Ernst, Gala and Paul Éluard. Photo from 1922
Max Ernst his son Jimmy, Gala and Paul Éluard with their daughter Cécile and Luise Straus-Ernst. Innsbruck, 1922
In the autumn of the same year, the Éluards visited the Ernsts in Cologne. That time, the stars were aligned. Éluard and Ernst became each other’s sources of inspiration — the deep, bottomless and vibrant ones. In March 1922, there was published Répétitions — a collection of Éluard's poems and Ernst’s collages. Close relations between Ernst and the Éluard's turned into a love triangle. Gala didn’t hide anything from Éluard, who responded to all the assaults saying: "I love Max Ernst much more than Gala does."
Luise Straus-Ernst with her son Jimmy. 1928 (photo source)
Absolute peace reigned among that strange trio. Except that Luise Straus didn’t want to accept that: she took her son and left Ernst with Gala. Officially, their marriage was dissolved in 1926.
Ernst’s dream of Paris, unattainable for lack of a visa, was fulfilled by his new "spiritual brother" Paul Éluard: having received a duplicate passport in exchange for the allegedly lost one, he gave it to Dadamax. So Ernst came to the Éluards, who by that time had settled in the village of Saint-Brice in a suburb of Paris.
Trying to exclude Ernst from the family circle, Éluard's father bought his son and his wife an estate next to his own one, but he didn’t succeed in it. Ernst painted the Éluards' whole house, decorating its' walls with the fruits of his restless mind and the images of Gala. Driven to despair by irrepressible conflict, Paul Éluard left home for parts unknown, and soon sent a message that he was in Tahiti. The trio reunited in Saigon, but after a while the Éluards came to Paris. Ernst arrived later, after traveling through the countries of Southeast Asia. And discovered that during his absence, Dadaism had run its course: was born.
Autumn of 1925 brought Max Ernst success — he exhibited his new artworks at the Surrealists' gallery. In the spring of 1926 the artist had another successful exhibition in Paris.
Picture of Jean Aurenche, Marie-Berthe Aurenche and Max Ernst
In the autumn of the same year, in one of the art galleries, he met a young daughter of a high-ranking official, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. They were introduced to each other by Marie-Berthe's brother, director Jean Aurenche, who would win three César awards in the future and who was close with many Parisian artists. The beautiful Marie-Berthe, or, as she was called, Ma-Be, became Ernst’s beloved wife; their marriage lasted ten years.
Max Ernst and Marie-Berthe Aurenche.1930. Photo from the Man Ray Trust (source
A French aristocrat of ancient lineage, educated by the nuns of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, Marie-Berthe was mesmerized by a German artist whose popularity had just started to gain momentum. Having found out about their relationship, the girl’s father went to the police and accused Ernst of corrupting a minor. The lovers fled and had to hide for several months; Ernst sent letters to the bride’s father, begging him to give consent to their marriage. The couple married in 1927 and settled on the south-western outskirts of Paris. Two years later, Max Ernst created another graphic novel — The Hundred Headless Woman with a foreword by André Breton. In the book there was Gala, Marie-Berthe, and Loplop, "the Bird Superior," one of Ernst’s favourite fantasy characters.
Charming and intelligent, Max Ernst could fit into any company and didn’t shy away from scandals. In 1930, together with his wife, Marie-Berthe, he acted in Luis Buñuel 's film L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age), considered "erotic" and therefore banned from public exhibition. Little by little, Ernst became famous, his artworks were bought, and shortly after his debut in New York in 1931, the artist was recognized by the American public.
Marie-Berthe's eccentric excesses which Ernst considered amusing at the beginning of their married life,
gradually became unbearable to him. In 1936,
Ernst’s marriage with Marie-Berthe Aurenche broke up. Ma-Be turned to Catholicism,
vainly hoping to bring her beloved man back by prayers and pilgrimage. Just for the record,
in 1940 Ma-Be became the last woman in the life of the artist Chaïm Soutine
Ernst wasn’t single for long: a year later he met a young English artist Leonora Carrington.
Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton
Delighted, enraptured and enamoured, Leonora left her studies at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and moved to Paris. "I fell in love with Max’s paintings before I fell in love with Max," Leonora later recalled. Carried away by creativity, a lovely company of surrealists helped her and Max resist the horrors of fascism, which by then began to creep across Europe.
The idyll was overshadowed by the scandals with Ma-Be, who still hoped to bring her husband back. Wishing to avoid conflicts, Max and Leonora bought a house in Saint-Martin d’Ardes and decorated it with frescoes and sculptures. Both of them worked really hard, and Leonora even took up literature.
Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. Photo from 1937
The Second World War began, and Max Ernst, as a German national, was sent to the internment camp, from which he was rescued by Paul Éluard, having clout in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Leonora Carrington, experiencing those events all by herself, had a nervous breakdown and was taken to Spain by her friends. After the second breakdown, Leonora’s father insisted on her treatment in a psychiatric clinic, where she fled from in 1941. Having applied for political asylum in the Mexican Embassy, Leonora found the opportunity to leave Spain by contracting a fictitious marriage, crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Portugal, later moving to the United States.
But back to Ernst. After his second arrest, the artist made two escapes, and finally, with the assistance of his ex-wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, was released as the husband of a French citizen; the divorce had to be hidden, and Ma-Be agreed to it. Having gone aboard the wanted ship, Max Ernst left for the USA, where his son Jimmy was waiting for him (Jimmy's mother, Ernst’s first wife, Luise Straus died in Auschwitz camp in 1944). Upon arrival, Ernst was immediately arrested as a spy from the country against which America conducted warfare.
Max Ernst was saved from American intelligence by his long-time admirer — the one that shortly before had bought almost all of his works. Peggy Guggenheim,
the niece of an American industrialist and collector Solomon Guggenheim,
got things under control,
and Ernst was released. Their paths crossed and parted — Max and Leonora met in New York and exchanged farewell gifts: Leonora gave Max his portrait Bird Superior (
which in 2018 was acquired by The Scottish National Gallery
), and in exchange received a painting Leonora in the Morning Light
, which she kept until the end of her life. They never met again.
Leonora Carrington and her husband, photographer Emerico ("Chiki") Weisz on their wedding day. Mexico City, 1946. Photo by Kati Horna
Leonora Carrington finished her escape from the horrors of Nazism in Mexico. There she found a family, gave birth to two sons and lived a long and fruitful life. Without Max. Leonora Carrington’s work is considered a national treasure in Mexico.
Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Photo from the early 1940s
Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim got married in December 1941.
They settled in a mansion on the East River, where Ernst had a large and comfortable studio. Peggy was one of the richest women in the world, who helped many artists fleeing the war and finding themselves in America on a shoestring. Yet, despite the creative atmosphere prevailing in their house, the marriage of Peggy and Max was quite short.
Max Ernst in his New York studio. Photo from 1940
And in 1943 Ernst met a young artist — right, another young artist! -Dorothea Tanning. They say that it was Peggy who asked her husband to evaluate a painting of the young artist, who boldly and catchily depicted herself in a self-portrait. And Ernst turned out to be fascinated by the original.
A Swede by origin, Dorothea came to Chicago in 1930 to study painting. A few years later, having visited the exhibition of Surrealists and Dadaists, she fell in love with new art and became deeply engrossed in it. Having moved to New York, Dorothea joined André Breton’s Surrealist group, and a year later met Max Ernst. After a three-year relationship, Ernst and Tanning got married in Hollywood.
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning (1942, photo by Irving Penn)
Having won a competition, after which his painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony was shown in a Hollywood film, Ernst received $2,500 and spent it on a piece of land in the picturesque Arizona town of Sedona, offering a splendid view of the Grand Canyon. Max built a house and studios with the help of his assistant from among the admirers. Using plaster casts from everyday objects, the artist created the sculpture Capricorn which led to a house on a rise being named "Capricorn Hill".
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Sedona. Arizona. 1948.
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Photo by Lee Miller
Max and Dorothea travelled a lot, collecting Indian art objects and artefacts; they were often visited by their friends, immersed in the atmosphere of a house built to the taste of the owners, decorated with their own hands and surrounded by fascinating nature of Arizona. On Capricorn Hill, there prevailed a creative atmosphere, freedom and fun. It was there where Ernst finished working on his essay Beyond Painting, published in 1948.
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Sedona. Arizona. Photo by Lee Miller
Peace time breathed new life into European art. In 1948, the couple decided to move to France. In 1953, they moved to Paris, and two years later — to Touraine. The couple lived together until Ernst’s death in 1976.
Having buried her husband in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, Dorothea Tanning returned home to the US. She lived there for many years — wrote a novel, two books of poems and memoirs, worked as a book illustrator and set designer, discovered graphics and sculpture.
Dorothea Tanning drew her last breath at the age of 101. Tanning’s 100th birthday in 2010 was marked by an exhibition called "Happy Birthday Dorothea Tanning" at the Max Ernst Museum (Brühl, Germany)
. That was the last congratulation from Max Ernst.
Author: Rita Lozynska.
Cover illustration: Max Ernst. Leonora in the Morning Light (1940). The publication contains photos from publicly available sources.
Artists mentioned in the article