With his continuing career spanning 80 years, Hans Erni proved that he can compete with the best in the world of fine art. However, communicating his message to the masses became more important.
"Have you been to the swimming pool yet?" One of the first questions I was asked when I started studying fine art in Lucerne. "You definitely have to go. The mural of Poseidon by Hans Erni there is fantastic, you've got to see it!" Hans Erni studied at the school of art Lucerne himself, 80 years ago. He is a local hero in the city; someone everyone knows about and loves. Eventually, I went to see the painting. Swimming beneath Poseidon! It was sublime. Hans Erni created the mural especially for the communal swimming-pool. An inspiring image, it gives the 50 year old indoor pool an atmosphere of purpose and class. Is this art or decoration? The public don't care and love him for his approachable art. Art critics, though, disregarded Hans Erni's work for decades.
Swiss shooting star
Erni began a draftsman apprenticeship but when the office closed down, he decided to enrol at the Art school in Lucerne. At the age of 19, he went to Paris and won the nude competition of the Academie Julian. He then began studying art in Berlin, despite being rejected at the entrance exam. Erni audaciously told the school that he had not received notification from them and has arrived to take his place on the course. His boldness was rewarded.
In his twenties, Erni became a staple of the modern art movement. His abstract paintings explored the capabilities of a painting, totally true to the mantra "art for art's sake". His art created a space of its own within the painting that couldn't exist outside of it. He became part of pioneering art groups and exclusive art exhibitions of the era. One of the highlights was an exhibition in the Lucerne Art museum entitled "Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis", which Erni was asked to curate himself. True to the thoughts of the German philosopher Hegel, it encompassed a principle Erni internalised and uses for his art constantly. In the show, Erni hung his artwork confidently alongside artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and Giacometti. The media reported benevolently, the public reacted with incomprehension. In retrospect, the show was one of the most important exhibitions in Switzerland. However, Erni wanted more than just the respect of the art world. He wanted to reach the people.
That chance came came with a commission that meant...