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January 10 - April 4, 2004, at Pepperdine University, West Side

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

“The Elements,”
1942, o/c, 24 x 20”.

“Perigee Tide,”
1953, o/c, 60 x 50”.

1964, o/c, 50 x 40”.

“Before It Is Too Late,”
1976, o/c, 50 x 60”.

Jimmy Ernst has seen both the best and worst of humankind. Born into a life of artistic privilege, he saw the promise and hope of his youth shattered in the darkness of the Nazi reign of terror. Yet his art stands as a testament to the power of the human spirit to triumph even in the face of unspeakable horror.

Ernst must have had a magical childhood. He was called “Jimmy, Dadafex Minimus” by his father, the Dada/Surrealist master Max Ernst. His mother, Louise Straus-Ernst, was a well-known art historian. As a child he grew up in the midst of the leading artists and intellectuals in Europe. Imagine--as lore has it--his diapers being changed by Paul Klee (that would have been something to witness), and Jean Arp giving him piggyback rides. He and his mother were captured by famed photographer August Sandler in an unforgettable image: his searching eyes are so haunting.

Yet for all the beauty that surrounded him as a child, his life was to take a terrifying turn as his mother and father were sent to concentration camps as enemies of the Third Reich. While Jimmy was able to secure the release of his father, he was unable to rescue his mother, who was to eventually die in Auschwitz. He is a witness to the promise of a world enhanced by the power of art, destroyed by hatred.

In America, his art reflected the influences of his adopted country. In 1950, his reputation was such that he joined the “Irascible Eighteen” along with such noted artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem deKoonig, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko. He is immortalized in that famous photograph of the Irascibles protesting the lack of abstract art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This exhibition surveys over forty years of the artist’s work, reflecting the depth and range of Ernst’s career. From dark and haunting images such as Moonscape (1969) that look like carvings on the side of Pueblo pottery, to the almost psychedelic explosions of lines and bold colors in Before It Is Too Late (1976), his scope is striking. In early paintings like The Elements (1942) you can see standard Surrealist motifs at play. The swaying, biomorphic forms seem to be dancing to an unheard music, most likely jazz, of which the artist was very fond.

Icarus (1964) comments on a subject that Ernst visited numerous times: the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. It was a theme dear to his heart--the unquestioning trust of a son for his father. The artist believed that the fall of Icarus was not about disobedience, but blind trust. One can understand, after witnessing the events of his youth, how trust might be in short supply. This work exemplifies Ernst’s artistic skills. The soft, feathered white strokes that fill the upper left hand region of the canvas give the impression of the falling wings of the mythological son as he plunges into the sea. The blue green background of the painting gives the feeling of the cold sea awaiting the falling flyer. The almost crystalline background of the imagery, created with a fine network of lines, recalls the scientific drawings of Leonardo. The whole is a complex vortex of color and line.

The work of Jimmy Ernst celebrates the expanse of human experience. His colors and imagery probe the depths of emotions in a sensitive artist struggling to come to terms with life. The honesty demonstrated in his search for meaning though his art makes for a powerful viewing experience.