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Artist Hans Erni celebrates 95th birthday

Hans Erni in his workshop near Lucerne.

(hans-erni.ch)

One of Switzerland’s most famous artists, Hans Erni, is celebrating his 95th birthday.

To mark the occasion, Erni - who still paints - spoke to swissinfo about the past, the boycott of his work and the future.

Born in 1909, Erni first gained international attention when he created a 100m by 5m mural for the 1939 Swiss National Exhibition in Zurich.

Erni, who celebrated his birthday on February 21, later branched out into other mediums, such as mosaics and graphics, as well as designing posters and stamps.

The artist, who is famous for his use of geometric lines, has always been enormously popular among the public. But he has fared less well in the art world where his work has often been ignored.

After the Second World War, Erni was considered a Marxist and was ostracised in Switzerland for many years.

swissinfo: You are famous for your use of geometric lines in your paintings. Is this style something that you invented or is it a part of your personality?

H.E.: This style, as you call it, goes back to my apprenticeship as a surveyor when I learned that the triangulation [measuring] of the world could only be achieved by using geometry.

This allows me to give my work a universal character. The lines of my work are not contrived but are spontaneous forms that reproduce what I, as an artist, felt at that moment.

swissinfo: You have often done commissions, one of which was for the National Exhibition in 1939. Can an artist be individual, if he takes on such work?

H.E.: I never felt restricted by this. I’ve always found that if I am confronted with problems, I end up richer for it.

At the time that the architect Hans Meili commissioned the work, I was working in London. My style at that time was abstract and my circle included the [British abstract] sculptor, Henry Moore. Later I was often criticised for abandoning the abstract style.

Even though I was commissioned for the National Exhibition to do “Switzerland, Holiday Land of Nations”, I was pretty free to do it in the way I wanted.

swissinfo: “Switzerland Holiday Land of Nations” – wasn’t that a bit of a strange title considering the times?

H.E.: Well, they were strange times. The picture had to show the tension that was everywhere: Nazi Germany in the north, the fear of war, the sense of threat. I tried to represent that in my picture.

swissinfo: You must have already known about the expression “degenerate art” at that time.

H.E.: Yes, of course. But it wasn’t degenerate art at all. That phrase was coined by Hitler who banned this type of art. Later on it became clear that this “degenerate art” had actually predicted the catastrophe that was to come. The artist is a witness of his age.

swissinfo: That’s exactly what you were and for this reason you were boycotted after the war.

H.E.: That was a crushing blow for me. I had always campaigned for a peaceful world, but instead I found myself being punished for it.

Just because I had painted something for the Swiss-Soviet Union society, the Swiss government decided to spy on me during the Cold War. They made sure that I didn’t get any more public commissions for my work.

A series of bank notes that I had been working on were never put into circulation although they had already been printed. The boycott is still in operation. Do you know of a museum that exhibits my works?

swissinfo: However, you’re generally known to be an optimist.

H.E.: If an artist, or in general a creative person, doesn’t have some spark of optimism, then he is likely to be destroyed. Optimism breeds creativity. Look at Van Gogh: if he had measured his worth by his success [in his lifetime] there wouldn’t be any pictures from him.

swissinfo: So you’re not so interested in commercial success?

H.E.: No. Everything was ruined for me because of the long-time boycott. It was ironic that I was successful in the United States during the McCarthy era at a time when other artists, such as Charlie Chaplin, were being ostracised - just as I was in Switzerland.

swissinfo: Turning to the future – do you think that you have been immortalised through your work?

H.E.: I don’t think about it – it’s so unrealistic. If I thought about what would happen after my death and not about my life now, I’d definitely be on the wrong track.

swissinfo-interview: Urs Maurer (translation: Isobel Leybold)

In brief

1909: born in Lucerne, afterwards studies to be a surveyor, before turning to art.

1939: makes his breakthrough painting a 100m by 5m mural for the Swiss National Exhibition.

1979: opening of the Hans Erni Museum in Lucerne.

1984: designs six stamps for the United Nations.

2004: Hans Erni exhibition in Lucerne to celebrate his 95th birthday.

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