Max Ernst was born on 2 April 1891 in Brühl, near Cologne, the first son of Philipp Ernst, teacher of the deaf and amateur painter, and his wife, Luise, née Kopp. Max Ernst never received any formal artistic training. In 1910-1914 he studied philosophy and psychiatry at Bonn University and took a deep interest in painting.
In 1914 Ernst got acquainted with Jean (Hans) Arp, and their lifelong friendship began. With the outburst of the First World War Ernst was conscripted to the army, where he served in the field artillery till the end of the war, never dropping his interest in art. It was during the war, in 1916, when he took part in the "Sturm" exhibition in Berlin. To the same period date his first contacts with Dada artists.
After demobilization Ernst settled in Cologne, where, together with Johannes Theodor Baargeld, a pseudonym for Alfred Grünwald (1892-1927), he founded a group of Dadaists. Their exhibition of 1920 at the Winter Brewery in Cologne was closed by the police on the grounds of obscenity. The works of this period are mostly 'junk' assemblages (e.g. Fruit of a Long Experience, 1919) and collages of printed matter. School text-books, educational placards and mail-order catalogs became his main source of materials. Cut-outs of different objects and patterns supplied by quotations come into absurd compositions, full of sarcasm. (e.g. The Hat Makes the Man. 1920; Dada-Gauguin, 1920, etc.)
In 1922, Max Ernst, following an invitation of his Dadaist friends, Gala and Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and others, moved to Paris. The same year he painted A Reunion of Friends, where he depicted himself and all his associates. In the paintings of his early Parisian period the artist was able to successfully combine the techniques of painting, assemblage and collage in large-scale paintings with enigmatic plots, e.g. Oedipus Rex, 1922; Teetering Woman, 1923; Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924; etc.) In 1924 Ernst traveled to Indochina with Gala and Paul Eluard.
In 1924 André Breton published the First Surrealist Manifesto. Max Ernst was among those who shared the views and aims of the Surrealists and took an active part in founding the new movement. Ernst's invention of the frottage (pencil rubbings on paper or canvas) technique dates to the early 1920s. In this technique Ernst fulfilled a series of works, resulting in the publication of his famous "Histoire Naturelle". Frottage, which realizes the surrealistic principle of 'psychological automatism', Ernst applied in painting as well, inventing the so-called grattage (scrapings), e.g. Eve, the Only One Left to Us, 1925.
In the late 1920s Ernst turned to the beloved motifs of German Romanticism and revived them in a new, Surrealistic, manner: dark forests, mysterious caves, gloomy cliffs, dead moonlight, figures and faces which appear like ghosts from interlacing branches and twigs. (Fishbone Forest, 1927, Hunter 1926, Vision Induced by the Nocturnal Aspect of the Porte St. Denis. 1927, Bird in a Forest, The Horde, 1927)