Hans Erni has one impressive resume. He's one of Switzerland's best-known artists, with his work displayed as murals, posters, sculptures, and even on stamps. He was a contemporary of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian at one point. Over the decades, he's worked in lithography, digital technology, and everything in-between. And, at 103 years old, he still works in his studio every day, rivaling artists a quarter of his age.
Armed with that mini bio, I had high hopes for Erni's first major retrospective here in the United States, held at the Museum of Printing History. But once I found my way to the show in the maze that is the modest museum, all the while braving the raw smells of new paper being made, I was, well, let down.
The retrospective consists of 40 posters, mainly painted illustrations, arranged for the most part in chronological order, from 1948 to 2009. Surely, with a decades-long career, Erni has done more than posters, and the museum's exhibition brochure even boasts that his work includes paintings, print and book illustrations, stage design, tapestry, and postage stamps. Sure, the exhibition needed some focus given his wide span, but with row upon row of 128x91cm posters, other types of graphic art would have been appreciated simply for some variety, as well as to accurately portray and pay tribute to the range of Erni's work.
Another missing component was context. Given his Swiss pedigree, the posters were largely in French and German, and removed from their time frame of reference, making them difficult to decipher. Of course, you can infer meaning from the image and cognates, but it's like listening to an opera or watching a foreign film without any subtitles.
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Though just as you can appreciate an opera by its melody and set design, or a film by its cinematography and framing, you can judge Erni's graphic artwork on its own. And the work itself varies wonderfully in style and theme, from dramatic images of a skull topped with an atomic bomb plume to a decapitated tree (literally). They're often boldly colorful images, with affinities for social progress and criticism of technological progress that at one time got his posters prohibited from public display, even though they seem tame now.
Many of the 40 posters displayed here courtesy of the artist are united by Erni's repeated use of geometric elements, especially circles, and sometimes even consistent fonts. Despite these identifiable Erni "traits," the artist does adopt similar styles to the masters, such as in a striking silkscreen from 1961 of a naked woman that's reminiscent of Picasso and a Degas-esque print of a woman holding up a giant nut. These intriguing finds make for some standouts in this small show, which will be warranted viewing for fans of Erni stateside, especially given his limited presence here. For newbies, make sure to do your homework in advance.
"The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni" at the Museum of Printing History, 1324 West Clay Street, now through June 9. For more info, visit the museum's website.