A NOT-SO-STILL LIFE by Jimmy Ernst
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Don't be put off by the brief yet ominous opening chapter here: artist Ernst (b. 1920) describes the 1976 cremation of his famous father Max--in thick, pretentious, pseudo-poetic prose. Happily, however, the style becomes much more straightforward as Ernst goes back in time; and this account of his first 25 years, if never fully involving, is rich in period-backgrounds, surrounding personalities, and cultural cross-hatchings. Jimmy's parents--German/Catholic surrealist Max, German/Jewish art-critic Lou--were only married briefly: in the early 1920s Max was inevitably drawn to Paris, a departure triggered by his affair with the outrageous Gala Eluard. (Then married to Max's chum Paul, she later wed Salvador Dali--and tried to seduce young Jimmy in 1940s N.Y.) So Jimmy grew up mostly in Cologne--with a freethinking mother, lots of surrogate fathers (Paul Klee, Tristan Tzara), hostile/religious grandparents, frequent trips to Paris. . . and the encroaching shadow (fresh, grim specifics) of Nazism. In the mid-1930s he was transformed by Picasso's Guernica: he began to appreciate the genius of his work-obsessed, womanizing, sarcastic father. He also resolved to get to America, though mother Lou--thoroughly European, now in Paris--refused to go along. And so, with help from literary Germans and Americans, Jimmy got the necessary, hard-won papers, arriving in N.Y. in 1938: ""I was not fleeing into exile; perhaps I was going home."" But, with scanty English, America wasn't quite ""home"" at first: there were disastrous part-time jobs, a crash-course in slang from Studs Lonigan. Eventually Jimmy did find Ms niche--with work at the Museum of Modern Art, a circle of bohemian friends, his own art-career beginnings. Then father Max arrived, in a state of ""mutual entrapment"" with insecure Peggy Guggenheim: Jimmy became their major-domo, referee, art cataloguer. The book ends, however, in tragedy: the suspicion, then the confirmation, that Lou--supposedly sale in Vichy France--died in a concentration camp; and, for guilt-ridden Jimmy, ""ben murder. . . was terminal evidence that I never belonged to what I had left behind."" This personal story of growing-up and exile, unfortunately, is the weakest thread in Ernst's memoir--without the immediacy or depth needed to back up his thematic proclamations. But the odd-angled, inside view of assorted art-worlds here is frequently disarming. (Piet Mondrian getting his first look at a Jackson Pollock; five great expatriate artists debating Abstraction, as if they were ""shooting marbles or jumping hopscotch."") And with Ernst's quietly engaging adventures as framework, this is modestly rewarding reading for followers of 20th-century art--far more absorbing than the different, yet comparable, testimony of John Bernard Myers' Tracking the Marvelous (p. 1201).

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1983
ISBN: 0916366812
Publisher: St. Martin's