A technique in which paper or canvas is placed over a grainy surface and rubbed with a crayon or charcoal. This was often used by Surrealist artists to create chance effects. From the French word ‘frotter’, meaning ‘to rub’.
Origins of the Technique: Max Ernst
Surrealist artist Max Ernst was the first to pioneer the frottage technique and to give it the name. The French word ‘frottage’ had erotic associations which suited the Surrealist fascination with Sigmund Freud’s theories around sexual association and dreams. Ernst was first inspired to try the unusual process by the grainy texture of an old wooden floor, with a richly worn-down patina suggesting curious, hybrid creatures or mystical landscapes. He placed a sheet of paper over the floor and rubbed it with a soft, dark stick of graphite to produce unexpected and surprising outcomes. Pleased with the results, Ernst moved on to rub paper laid across an array of other surfaces including thread, straw, textiles, netting and dried paint.
As his confidence grew Ernst began moving the paper while rubbing to allow the original content to mutate into something new. Then, something miraculous happened, as Ernst saw new forms emerging from the paper, which he could rework with passages of drawing, as seen in the artwork Elle garde son secret (She Keeps Her Secret), 1925. He observed, 'When I intensely stared at the drawing won in this manner, at the ‘dark spots’, and others of a delicate, light, semi-darkness, I was (struck) by the sudden augmentation of my visionary facilities with contrasting and superimposed pictures.'
In the print series Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), 1926, based on Ernst’s frottage drawings, we see the results of Ernst’s visionary imagination as pictorial realms emerge from unusual textures featuring curious hybrid creatures and mystical, magical forests. Following on the success of these prints Ernst continued to experiment with how frottage techniques could be incorporated into his paintings and collages, taking rubbings from a further array of pre-existing surfaces and developing similar techniques of scraping or ‘grattage’ with oil paint on canvas.
Ernst’s ideas around frottage influenced many of his fellow Surrealists, particularly the artist and collector Sir Roland Penrose. Like Ernst, Penrose took an experimental approach, playing with the ways varying textures within a single image could create a sense of dissonance and transformation in collages and oil paintings. In his collage La Méditerranée, Etude Artistique, 1937, Penrose combines cut out pieces of frottage with fragments of picture postcards, arranging them into discordant shapes and patterns while allowing traces of recognisable imagery to creep through, suggesting just a trace of hidden narrative content.
German artist Joseph Beuys was fascinated by Max Ernst, and dedicated his artwork Naturgeschichte (Natural History), 1964-1982 to Ernst’s famous ‘Natural History’ frottage series. In contrast with Ernst, Beuys went directly to the source of the rubbings, presenting a piece of wood resembling floorboards with a richly worn surface, emphasising the same fascination with the mystical and historical properties hidden within the natural materials around us as Ernst.