Saturday, April 21, 2018
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Art in Focus: 'Sea of Grass Sunset' by Jimmy Ernst, son of Max Ernst

Today, Earth Day, is an opportunity to take a closer look at a landscape that celebrates the singular and fragile beauty of Florida's coastal marsh areas. Sea of Grass — Sunset is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. It was painted by Jimmy Ernst, who was born in Germany but embraced a new life in America from the moment he arrived in 1938. Ernst had every reason to be a damaged, embittered man. Instead, he came to terms with the facts of his life and the emotional toll they exacted with grace and strength, understanding the those facts also brought unprecedented gifts. As if that weren't achievement enough, Ernst became an important painter, mostly self-taught. This painting, made toward the end of his life, is an example of his talent and his never-ending interest in moving forward.

The artist

Jimmy Ernst (1920-1984) had about the best genetic provenance for an artist. His father was the fabled Max Ernst, a founder of the Surrealist movement. His mother, Lou Straus-Ernst, was a scholar, respected art historian and critic. He was born in Cologne, Germany, and his given name was Hans-Ulrich but his father dubbed him Jimmy when he was an infant. His was a difficult, fascinating and complicated childhood.

The couple divorced when Jimmy was a toddler and Max moved to Paris which had a more vibrant artistic atmosphere. Briefly, he was part of a menage a trois with poet Paul Eluard and his wife, Gala. That relationship didn't last and Gala went on to marry Salvador Dalí.

Lou struggled financially during Jimmy's childhood, getting no support either from Max's Catholic family or her Jewish family, but she gave him a stable and loving childhood at their home in Germany. During visits with his father in Paris, Jimmy met almost all of the important avant-garde artists, writers and intellectuals of the era, which didn't impress him at the time; to his father's annoyance, he was more interested in sports.

In the late 1930s, as Hitler consolidated his power, Jews were subjected to increasing harassment and threats, so a friend of his mother's arranged for his immigration to the United States in 1938. The Gestapo arrested Max in 1941 but he was able to escape and left for the United States with the help of a wealthy patron, Peggy Guggenheim, who would become his wife. Jimmy tried desperately to secure his mother's passage to the United States and Max, too, made many efforts, but, always the optimist, she was in denial about her situation and waited too long. She was on one of the last trains to Auschwitz before the liberation and died there.

Though his name helped get him art world jobs and entree into the New York art scene, Jimmy never traded on it. At the Museum of Modern Art, for example, he worked in the mail room. He began painting, crudely at first, and mostly using the Surrealist vocabulary he had picked up subliminally in his childhood. In maturity, his art evolved into an abstract style that was considered original. He was a successful artist who won his share of honors and had high standing among his contemporaries, but he never achieved the international acclaim of Max. He seemed not to care, proud of his famous father and content with his own life. Jimmy married happily and had two children. In later years, he and his wife, Dallas, divided their time between a home in Long Island and one in Nokomis, south of Sarasota.

The painting

Sea of Grass — Sunset is a realistic landscape painted near the end of the career of a painter known only as an abstract artist. True, there is a degree of abstraction in the dramatic composition: Seven horizontal planes (some viewers see eight) in vibrant colors stacked on each other with little depth of field. But the subject is clear, marsh grasses casting reflections from the sun on the surrounding water with a bit of sky above.

It is part of the Sea of Grass series of works on canvas and paper made between 1980 and 1984, one of Ernst's last major projects before his death in early 1986. This painting is one of two he painted in large format. It measures about 10 feet by 12 feet. The other is in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

"It's interesting for an artist who painted in a nonobjective style," says Jennifer Hardin, chief curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. "I think it had to do with being in his early 60s, a time that a lot of people reflect on who they are, where they are. Maybe he was trying to break with the past a little. Dallas (his wife) and I never came up with an answer."

The painting dominates its space; for years, Hardin had a difficult time exhibiting it until the new museum wing was added.

"It doesn't play well with others," she says because of its size and boldness. Ernst used primary and secondary colors in it, which gives it high contrast.

It's a painting you can take in quickly because it "reads" so easily. Doing it real justice requires more time. Ernst composed it so that the largest band is the row of green grass tipped with yellow, which is atypical in traditional landscapes that give more space to the sky. The grass is at eye-level and the closer you get to it, you feel surrounded by it, "plunged into the natural world," Hardin says. You can also see the textural contrasts Ernst used so skillfully to create each band in the landscape.

"It's a surprising painting," Hardin says, "and so beautifully executed."

A good read

Trying to compress a life into a few paragraphs, especially one as complex as Jimmy Ernst's, is impossible so I recommend his memoir, A Not So Still Life (Pushcart Press, 272 pages). Turns out, Ernst was as good a writer as he was a painter. English was his third language, after German and French, and he didn't begin to learn it until he moved to the United States at 18. It's a moving, eloquent account of a life lived through the prism of his father's fame and his mother's death, of a childhood and young adulthood fraught with cataclysmic events and displacement, all balanced with an acknowledgement of the exceptional experiences he also had and the extraordinary gifts he knew he inherited, most meaningfully his deep humanity given to him by his mother. The book ends with his father's death though Jimmy would live another eight years. But, as Hardin says, "it's really about his parents, not him." It was published shortly before Jimmy Ernst died.

The provenance

Dallas Ernst, Jimmy's widow, gave Sea of Grass — Sunset to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in 1997. She didn't have a close affiliation with the institution and the gift was the suggestion of friends of hers who were museum patrons. Chief curator Jennifer Hardin said Dallas Ernst liked the idea of its being in a Florida museum. She said it was an important addition to the collection because "we had, until then, few large-scale, post-1950 works." Hardin organized a mini-retrospective of Ernst's works in 1998 that included all of the Sea of Grass series.

 
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