Although throughout my youth I was aware that my father’s career as an artist marked him as distinctly unique compared to the parents of my friends and schoolmates, there were, in my boyhood years, definable and definitive instances where this crystallized into moments of true comprehension of how truly different that made him.
The first came when I was 8 years old and the family had just moved to New Canaan, Connecticut where we lived in an upscale neighborhood of houses designed by luminaries such as John Johansen, Elliot Noyes, and Phillip Johnson (whose own landmark glass home and underground art spaces were just across the street) and where art collections, while not always particularly cutting edge, were not unusual (one neighbor as I recall boasted a Calder stabile in his living room and a Marini horse in the garden).
So in a neighborhood filled with ostensibly sophisticated sorts of people, it came as a remarkable surprise when the process of building a studio on the property became an issue of profound concern at the zoning meeting, highlighted by a neighbor asking the rhetorical yet highly revealing question “Why doesn’t Mr. Ernst commute to New York like the rest of us?”
Seemingly, art was ok, but artists themselves were a bit more suspect, apparently likely to engage in bongo parties and orgies highlighted by beat poetry readings. Needless to say, regardless of the desirability of owning blue-chip status symbols, the creators themselves were still deemed unfit for proper society.
I use the word ‘still’ because I was reminded of this incident years later when my father told a story of how his grandfather, the painter Philip Ernst, had once said that “In my time, mothers watching their children playing outdoors might suddenly yell at them, ‘Hey, kids, hide your sandwiches, there’s an artist coming up the street!’”
Time, apparently, had done little to ameliorate this perspective in regards the respectability of the creative community although some measure of progress may have been achieved years later when a Hamptons realtor was overheard to enthusiastically exclaim that he “likes artists moving in because they attract a better class of people.”
Another occasion, somewhere around the summer of 1972, a photograph arrived unannounced from a publishing house in Europe that was at the time documenting the photographs of the great German portraitist August Sander. I remember seeing it lying on the kitchen table in our house in East Hampton, a portrait of a mother and her son from an earlier time, their gaze direct and absent any overt emotions, yet in the boy’s eyes’ lurked a certain unease, a tenuousness wrought with portent as he leans into his mother’s side, conjuring a bond both physical and psychological.
I remember my father staring at the image of himself from 40 years earlier with a look of nostalgic wonderment and painful bewilderment, searching deeply into a moment he had long ago pushed into a distant corner of his mind but now brought back to the conscious surface with an immediacy and intensity that I knew from one glance would lead that night to considerably more than one drink before dinner.
The caption read simply “Dr. Lu Strauss, divorced wife of painter Max Ernst, with her son (France, 1928)” and I remember finding myself staring into the eyes of my father when he was about my age and perhaps for the first time discovering a frame of reference for all the stories he had told me over the years. Of his father who had abandoned him at the age of two, moving into what was a rather unorthodox three-way relationship with the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard and Gala, the infamous Russian temptress later to marry Salvadore Dali. Of the constant fear he felt growing midst the birth of National Socialism and the horror and degradation he witnessed as Jews were beaten and humiliated in the streets. Of the ostracism and lack of acceptance he recieved from both his mother’s Jewish family and his father’s Catholic one for his parents’ temerity and blasphemy in having married outside their faiths, a cruelty made even more immediate by his mother’s move to Paris thereby forcing him to live with the very relatives who viewed his existence as little more than a public embarrassment.
And, as I watched my father travel back to these days as he pondered the photograph before him, for the first time I also began to truly comprehend the sense of guilt he sometimes spoke about in not having been able to rescue his mother from her demise in the ovens of the Third Reich’s Final Solution. True, he was instrumental in saving his father, but his own feeling of failure and frustration in not having been able to secure a visa for his mother until it was too late haunted his dreams and his every waking moment for the remainder of his life.
I saw it then for the first time in his eyes and I was to later recognize it countless times afterward, at those moments when the mask slipped and the nightmares and sense of pain and futility rushed to the surface and yet he never was subsumed by it. Instead, it appeared in his paintings which became, in his hands, simultaneously an instrument of vengeance against the forces of fascism that had stolen his childhood and an assertion of the primacy of humanistic ideals over the barbarism and ultimate inhumanity of jingoistic ideologies.
Art became, for my father, a refuge from the horrors he had witnessed as a youth as well as his own personal cage of nightmares; each serving in their own way as outlets for the feelings of pain and futility that never really vanished no matter how long the time had passed or the distance traveled from where he had begun.
It was, without question, in my mind a remarkable revelation to undergo in no small part because by then I was anything but a stranger to my father’s life as an artist. Unlike his own relationship with the rather foreboding Max, I was always welcome in Jimmy’s studio and had spent literally countless hours watching him work while listening to jazz, Mozart or Yankees games, pestering him with what I’m sure were rather inane questions about this and that while furtively scanning the European skin mags he used for collages. There had even been times when I was 5 or 6 when he would sit me on his lap and, placing the brush in my tiny hands with his covering mine, would guide me in placing those feathery strokes of color over the surface of the work, constructing elegant matrix’s that were reminiscent of nothing so much as light pouring through the windows of a cathedral from his youth.
But it was only as I watched my father staring deeply into his own past that I began to recognize where these kaleidoscopic reveries had originated. As time went on, I even became cognizant that those images from more contemporary events that appeared as themes in his works, such as the massacre of innocents in Sharpeville or the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in Saigon, were always filtered through the sense of anger he felt at having lived through and witnessed atrocities like this before.
Perhaps most importantly, over time I also began to recognize the manner in which being an artist had become his own salvation, even as it seemed to force him to relive moments that others would choose to leave in the darkest recesses of time and distant memory.