Research point: Max Ernst & Frottage
Max Ernst (1891-1976), German-born painter, sculptor and printmaker, was one of the leading Surrealists. Following the First World War, he was disillusioned with convention, both cultural and moral. ‘Ernst argued that the task of the artist was to liberate the human imagination. This could be achieved by attacking all constraints on its functioning, notably those imposed by conventional notions of reality, morality and reason, and those embedded in the mind in the form of inhibitions. He justified the techniques of collage and frottage as devices for evading these constraints and releasing the creative forces of the unconscious’ (Gee, 2013).
Ernst introduced the technique of frottage (rubbing) in 1925, having become transfixed by the deep grain of his wooden floorboards. He lay pieces of paper on the floor and rubbed the surface with a soft black pencil. “The drawings thus obtained steadily lost the character…of the wood,” recalled Ernst, “and assumed the aspect of unbelievably clear images” (Ernst, 1948). In this way, Ernst was able to elaborate on these images, twisting and turning the paper, taking patterns from a combination of surfaces, eventually producing strange and mysterious landscapes and curious creatures.
In 1926, he published a collection of frottage works called ‘Histoire Naturelle’, incorporating many of these fantastical images.
Frottage suited the Surrealist preference for work that relied on chance and the subconscious. This method of working was known as Automatism (Masters, 2013).
Ernst applied frottage to his paintings, too, often combined with other techniques, such as collage. In the oil painting below, the rubbed patterns are clearly visible.
In addition to the attraction of working in this metamorphic way, Ernst saw frottage as one way of dealing with his fear of the blank canvas – what he called “the virginity complex”. He speaks about this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHdU4JfY-bU (Texture Tile: Ernst 02, 2010).
In the course of searching for other artists who have used frottage, I discovered the work of Prunella Clough (1919-1999). The Tate notes her ‘primary and lasting preoccupation with the potential for abstraction in flatness of form’ (Lack, 2000). Her use of textures derived through frottage is rather more abstract in style than much of Ernst’s work, but both artists offer inspiration in exploring this technique further.
Ernst, M. (1948) Beyond Painting, and other writings, New York, Wittenborn & Schultz.
Gee, M. (2013) Ernst, Max(imilian) [Online], Oxford Art Online, Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T026563?q=frottage&search=quick&pos=12&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 24 February 2013).
Lack, S. (2000) Prunella Clough [Online], Tate, Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/prunella-clough-921 (Accessed 24 February 2013).
Masters, C. (2013) Ernst, Max [Online], Oxford Art Online, Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e838?q=frottage&search=quick&pos=13&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 24 February 2013).
Texture Tile: Ernst 02 (2010) YouTube video, added by educationbydesign [Online], Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHdU4JfY-bU (Accessed 24 February 2013).