Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Not-so-Still Life

I just finished A Not-so-Still Life by Jimmy Ernst, the son of Max Ernst. Someone loaned me the book as I am looking into memoirs by artists. This one is surprisingly entertaining.

And why wouldn't it be, when your dad's friends are Man Ray, Jean Arp and Tristian Tzara? It is filled with amusing accounts of how these people act in their homes and at parties. It also covers a fairly important time in American history, for Jimmy and his dad are part of a European tidal wave which invaded Manhattan as the Nazis took over Europe. And of course Peggy Guggenheim is front and center during those prime years.

Jimmy Ernst views it all from an insider/outsider’s perch: his dad is firmly entrenched in Surrealism which is quickly becoming Old School as Jimmy meets Rothko, Pollock and everyone else. Even Piet Mondrian sets poor Max on the defense.

But that kind of content might be only of interest to the artist and art historian. What makes this book a tearjerker is that Jimmy has two parents and one doesn’t make it out of the war. He’s got one eye on a strange and exciting art crowd, but the other is on a land he rejects as his home. Jimmy tells a twisting tale of an optimism he eventually resents. His mother thinks everyone will get over Hitler, that things will go back to the way they were and so she stays in Europe. The cruncher for Jimmy arrives one day while he is working on the film Mildred Piece (starring Joan Crawford) and someone runs up to him: “Stop everything you’re doing. You’ve got to see this.” And it’s a film like he’s never seen, the first footage of the camps.

His mother, Lou Ernst, was sent “back east” on one of the final trains leaving Paris. She died in Auschwitz.

Of course Max had long since left her for Gala, who would become Dali's wife and is a real piece of work. Yet Jimmy is never mean about anyone. He progresses through the wives and the women fairly evenly and just lets you decide what to think of everyone.

Throughout my 20s, I loved Max Ernst, but I think I was merely under the influence (or the spell) of someone who adored him and his work. Odd, too, because the friend often called women goddesses and thought himself a feminist. Maybe none of that matters, but it’s clear to me that Max Ernst treated women like toilet paper. Somehow this was all funneled through or in the name of art – you know, “genius" and all.


nod said...

men.. umm will be men.. giggle


namastenancy said...

I remember seeing a long documentary on Ernst and realizing, for the first time, just how callous he was toward women. But then, most of the surrealists were. I recommend Ruth Brandon's book "Surreal Lives" for a great look at a the whole bunch of them. Again, I sort of knew that Dali and Gala were a piece of work but I didn't know all the details. Any woman who survived the surrealist camp to actually make art was mega-strong and focused. Otherwise, they just got either walked on or swallowed up.

Anonymous said...

The image to hit it home for me was the outdoor luncheon photos... the guys sitting around in their suits, the women topless. I don't even recall who was in the photograph or who took it, but it really made an impression.

Pivoine said...

Curieux, il y a justement une expo sur Leonora Carrington à Paris, peintre surréaliste qui fut sa compagne. Moi aussi, j'aimais les artistes surréalistes à 18 ans. Et les poètes o;)

Je lis et dans les grandes lignes, je comprends. Un peu. C'est hyper intéressant. Ce sont des recherches sur Marlène Dumas qui m'ont amenée chez vous...