Now on View: Jimmy Ernst

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Jimmy Ernst, the son of master Surrealist artist Max Ernst and Jewish art historian and journalist Louise Straus, had anything but a normal life. Wrapped in art and German history, he lived through major successes as well as terrible tragedies.

Born in 1920 in Cologne, Germany, he was surrounded by several Dada and Surrealist artists from an early age. He describes in his memoir, A Not-So-Still Life, that Paul Klee changed his diapers and Man Ray helped teach him English. After his parents divorced, he remained in Cologne with his mother but frequently visited his father, who had moved to Paris. There he met other artists like Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Giacometti. Even though he was surrounded by art his whole life, it wasn’t until he saw Pablo Picasso’s exhibition Guernica in Paris in 1938 that he became interested in becoming an artist himself. It was because of Guernica that he saw what paint could do as a material and was inspired to start creating.

Like many artists, Ernst worked in multiple types of mediums or materials. Here he chose a silkscreen, instead of a painting, to get his message across to viewers. Jimmy Ernst, American, 1920-1984. Untitled. Silkscreen, 1970. Gift of Mr. Randall E. Heine.

Backtrack to 1933; this is when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Just before the outbreak of World War II, in 1938, Jimmy left Germany to immigrate to America because he was half Jewish. Now safely in New York City, he began working at the film library in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He started meeting with avant-garde and other European artists in exile in 1940, and petitioned the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to try and aid his parents escape from Europe. The ERC was successful in securing Max Ernst from internment in the Camps des Milles in France the following year. Max arrived in New York, along with his wife-to-be Peggy Guggenheim, who made Jimmy the director of her new gallery, Art of This Century in 1942. Louise Straus remained in France where she was held in Camp de Gurs, a detention camp on the Spanish border, for her work in the French Resistance. Just a couple of years after, unknown to Jimmy, his mother was transported to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where she died, which Jimmy discovered only a few years before his death.

Now in New York City with his father and his new job at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, his art career started to gain momentum. In 1943, he had his first solo exhibition at the Norlyst Gallery. Jimmy went through many phases in his art career, living through various art movements. His early work reflects his Surrealist roots (is anyone surprised?) and he dabbled in Abstract Expressionism, but it was in 1950 that he found his niche.

Will Barnet, a member of the “group” The Irascibles, is also featured in our permanent collection show A Year of Making Meaning 2018. Will Barnet, American, 1911-2012. The Dog. Oil on canvas, 1996. A Gift from Mark M. Suedhoff, 2018. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

Jimmy teamed up with artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and William de Kooning, to name a few. Later they were known as The Irascibles; a name given to them following their inclusion in Life magazine despite their discomfort with being labelled as a group and preferring individual recognition. The Irascibles, a word meaning “to be easily angered,” formed as a protest to a juried exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). The exhibition did not jury in, or select, any abstract or contemporary work from the emerging art movements. The “group” drafted a letter to the Met denouncing the exhibit, stating that they would not submit work because of the juror’s bias. At the time, MoMA was trying to separate and show their uniqueness from the Met. Therefore, MoMA included a few of the artists for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a contemporary art exhibition in which each country selects artists to represent them. It sets the stage for international excellence and is the largest display for new and emerging artists, therefore, this exposure further advanced their movement and also spread it internationally. Later, more artists came forward and added their support for The Irascibles, including Will Barnet, Milton Avery, and Reginald Marsh. The Life magazine article, despite their reservations about the mainstream media, promoted their movement and led to their following exhibitions being huge hits, resulting in their careers skyrocketing. The group started arguing about exhibitions, however, and friendships ended the following year.

Jimmy Ernst’s post-1950s calmed down significantly. Now an established name he traveled, got married, had children, and was included in exhibitions, racking up several awards. In 1984, he published his memoir, A Not-So-Still Life, and in between installing paintings at the Armstrong Gallery and promoting his new book and exhibit, he suddenly suffered a heart attack. He was 63 years old.

Jimmy Ernst, American, 1920-1984. Dusklight. Acrylic on canvas, 1980. Gift of Mark M. Suedhoff, 2018. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

That brings us to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s big beautiful painting by Jimmy Ernst. Completed in 1980, towards the end of his life, he was established in style and technique. Although it’s abstract, you get a sense of an imposing structure, possibly green grass with a bright blue sky. Ernst created a web-like painting technique, manipulating the space and forming an architectural structure. The size is also important; standing in front of it, it envelops you and consumes all of your focus onto the details.

Seen here, Jimmy Ernst’s web-like painting technique is reminiscent of a feather duster coated in paint. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

Accumulating artwork from all art movements is many museum’s goal to establish a well-rounded permanent collection. The period Jimmy Ernst lived in was crucial to American art because of the radical shifts in style that drastically changed the art scene. The shift from Dada and surrealism to more abstract work made people question what art was, much like what happened when Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into an art piece. Jimmy Ernst and The Irascibles pushed boundaries and made a lasting impression, paving the way for Abstract Expressionism, the first American art movement. Come see this painting, a recent acquisition to the permanent collection, currently on view in A Year of Making Meaning: New Additions to the Collection 2018 through June 9th!

One Reply to “Now on View: Jimmy Ernst”

Leave a Reply