TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1984

books

A Not So Still Life and Social Graces

“I HOPE THAT IS NOT the way Jimmy will remember me after he’s gone,” said Max Ernst. He was referring to an incident at Café Flore in Paris a few days before his son, Jimmy, was due to emigrate to the United States. Max’s first ex-wife, Jimmy’s mother, Lou Straus-Ernst, was present, as was his current mistress, Leonora Carrington, when his second ex-wife Marie-Berthe Aurenche passed by. She saw them all, but for once did not make a scene. This is typical of many occasions more awkward than revealing that Jimmy remembers in this autobiographical book, which concentrates mainly on his parents.

Jimmy Ernst was born in Germany in 1920 of a Jewish mother, who was an art historian and journalist, and a Catholic father, the painter Max Ernst. His parents’ marriage was unacceptable to both families. The Nazis declared his father’s work to be degenerate. His mother died in a concentration camp. Jimmy was able to escape from Germany through the kindness of the Augustin family of printers and publishers, who had employed him, and he was able to emigrate alone to the United States in 1938 and make a living there, eventually becoming a painter too. Max arrived two years later in the entourage of Peggy Guggenheim, who was to become his unhappy, third wife.

Given the inherent drama of his family history and the celebrity of his father, it is disappointing that Jimmy Ernst manages to reduce major political and emotional upheavals to trite anecdotes. For example, his first game of baseball in America is given more emphasis than his last glimpse of his mother in France. Often it seems that he has had to invent details and dialogue to fill in gaps in his memory, rather in the way Karl May, one of his favorite authors as a child, wrote stories about American Indians without ever leaving Germany. The names of famous artist friends are frequently listed; trivialities that could have happened to anyone are carefully set down; the tragedy of 20th-century European history becomes the backdrop for a domestic puppet show.

Perhaps this is the only way the author could tell the story of his peripatetic childhood, spent in the company of major Dada and Surrealist artists; of the changes of nationalities, languages, and careers he underwent; of the atrocious death of his adoring mother; and of his relationship to his famous erratic father. This is an intensely personal but low-key narrative which would have benefited from less confession and more introspection.

Jimmy Ernst, A Not So Still Life (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek), 288 pp., 54 black and white illustrations.

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Larry Fink’s first book of photographs is divided into two parts, “Black Tie” and “Martins Creek.” He is insider and outsider in both social words, but his affection and sympathy clearly lie with the latter, a working-class community in Pennsylvania which he records with concentrated attention. His “Black Tie” photographs, taken at parties, gallery openings, benefits, and nightclub galas, are implicitly critical, like pictures of the sins of pride, sloth, wealth, lust, and gluttony. The people portrayed are mostly sharply defined by flash against dark backgrounds and look like marionettes, with even a masklike quality to their faces. Above all Fink documents the artificial gesture—the flying braid of hair, the affectedly held glass, our social sillinesses. Though there is a welcoming quality to the loving-hands-at-home hospitality radiating from the overfilled tables and overfed family in the Martins Creek pictures, Fink is no less searching and revealing in his record of his neighbors’ lives.

It is not the point to compare the “Black Tie” images with those of Fink’s neighbors, the Sabatine family, celebrating birthdays, baptisms, New Years, and graduations in their farming community. Fink’s purpose in combining them in the same book is not to set them off against each other but to make pictures about the details of all of our social moments, the tension between public and personal identity, the negotiations between self and world, and more generally the action or drama that occurs with every interaction. All his images are penetrating and filled with insight, anecdote, and undercurrent.

Larry Fink, Social Graces (Millerton, NY: Aperture), 79 pp., 69 black and white photographs.

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Anthony Korner is the publisher of Artforum.