Research point: Max Ernst and frottage

Max Ernst  (1909 to 1976)

max-ernst-imageFrottage, from the French verb frotter – to rub, is a technique that involves placing paper over a textured object (e.g. wood or brick) and rubbing with a medium such as pencil or crayon. Max Ernst and other Surrealist artists incorporated these rubbings into their paintings using collage. 

‘Grattage’ a similar technique, used by Ernst and others, involves scraping oil paint across a textured object. Both techniques were popular with Surrealists because they introduced an element of chance into their work as the artist is not totally in control of the outcome.

Ernst used frottage to probe his subconscious mind and also as a way to get started when faced with a blank canvas. In Peter Schamoni’s 1991 film, Ernst talks of the impossibility of putting down the first mark and described this as a “virginity complex”. He claims he discovered the frottage method in 1925 while staring transfixed by the deep wooden grain of his floor boards. He dropped pieces of paper at random, then rubbed the surfaces with soft black lead.

Ernst went on to use all kinds of materials including lengths of twine, wire mesh, crumpled paper and crusts of bread. He further developed these rubbings, often transforming them into surreal objects, creatures and landscapes. These are some examples of his work:

  • Ernst’s surprisingly contemporary looking Poire, one of his early frottage works, was created in 1925 using pencil and watercolour.
  • L’évadé (The Fugitive) from Histoire Naturelle is one of Ernst’s series of 34 collotype images (a photographic printing process) using frottage created in 1926.
  • Forest and Sun is a landscape created in 1931 using graphite frottage.

While Ernst studied philosophy and psychiatry at Bonn university until 1914, he received no formal art education. After serving in the first world war, in 1919 he and Johannes T Baargeld founded the Cologne Dadaist group. Dadaism was the precursor to the Surrealist movement which Ernst became actively involved with after moving to Paris in 1922.

Influenced by Sigmund Freud, Ernst’s work explores the borderlands between sanity and insanity. In a 1961 BBC Monitor film the interviewer probes Ernst about the apparently irrational nature of his work. Ernst replied that it is not the reasonable men but the mad men that made art history.

Ernst’s invention of the frottage process was significant because emphasis on the contact between materials, as well as transforming everyday materials to arrive at an image that signified some sort of collective consciousness, would become central to Surrealism’s ideal of automatism. This idea that the random and free interaction between artist and material produces an image of the artist’s subconscious  proved vital to Abstract Expressionists.  Jackson Pollock in particular was influenced by aspects of Ernst’s work.


BBC Monitor interview 1961
BBC Great Artists in their Own Words, 2013
Bridgeman Art
The Art Story
The Surrealists 


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