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LEFT: Max Ernst 1926 Les Moeurs des feuilles (The Habit of Leaves) from Histoire Naturelle RIGHT:Max Enst 1926 Le châle à fleurs givre (Iceflower Shawl and Gulf Stream) from Histoire Naturelle MoMA New York

The frottage (from the french frotter / to rub) is in fact an ancient printing technique. This transfer technique, that we all probable know from our childhood, consists on rubbing textured objects with graffito, pencil or crayon under a sheet of paper (wood, leaves, coins, bark, textiles). When we shift the paper the structure of  objects emerge.

frottage tree

Max Ernst 1925 Las Pampas from Histoire Naturelle, frottage, gouache and pencil on paper 26 X 36 CM. Private collection?

Around 1925 Max Ernst started using the technique of frottage as part of the surrealist semi-automatic procedures. Max Ernst and other Surrealist artists incorporated such rubbings into their paintings not as means of faithfully reproducing the model but as an artistic style in itself, as way of generating new original  imaginery.


Alighiero Boetti 1974 Masculine-Feminine. Pencil, collage & frottage on paper, 50 x 70 cm 
Private Collection.

The italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti in the seventies also used this technique.

Max Ernst in this video explains how he discovered this technique for himself on the rainy afternoon of August 10, 1925, when he observed a washed-out wooden floor in a hotel on the French Atlantic coast. The floor’s structure inspired him to place a piece of paper on the floorboards and then transfer its textures to the sheet with graphite.

Max Ernst  uses this technique in his natural history series.


Max Ernst 1925, Teenage Lightening from Natural History

If you follow my posts by now you already know that Max Ernst is not my favourite painter, but still surprises me constantly. I could not have worded it better:

“It is a difficult task to give novelty to what is old, authority to what is new, brilliance to the commonplace, light to the obscure, attraction to the stale, credibility to the doubtful, but nature to all things and all her properties to nature. Accordingly, even if we have not succeeded, it is honourable and glorious in the fullest measure to have resolved on the attempt.”

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Rome , 77  AD

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