Swiss artist Hans Erni dies at age 106
Hans Erni in 2007, during a sales tour of his works
Hans Erni, Atomkrieg nein, 1954
Hans Erni, AHV Ja, 1947
Shortly before publishing the news item below, I received notice that Hans Erni has died in Lucerne, Switzerland on March 21, 2015, one month after his 106. birthday.
Swiss artist Hans Erni turned 106 years old on Saturday, February 21, 2015. He designed about 90 postage stamps, medals and coins, banknotes, murals, sculptures, and over 300 posters, and illustrated about 200 books. He is still active, and said in a newspaper interview, when asked about his perception of time "that he didnít divide his time into days or weeks but rather into drawings, which I start and finish".
Hans Erni's poster work entered my life at many crucial points:
I must have noticed his posters for the first time in the early 1950's and admired them very much: Here was an obviously gifted artist who "could draw a galloping horse" (which was my standard for a good artist at the time). I was quite shaken when I was told by somebody who's authority I respected that I was quite wrong with my opinion, and that in fact Erni was not a good artist, but a communist, and what he did was not art but Kitsch. In fact, that he painted such Kitsch was a clear indication that he was a communist.
At that time, and where I grew up, being called a communist was about the worst thing you could say about somebody, comparable to "terrorist" today. They were the scum of the earth, evil, despicable, bad in every way. I had never met a communist, nor did I have a clear idea about theory or practice of communism, nor had I ever visited a communist country, but there was no need to know the details since it was common knowledge that communism was bad. Still, I had some doubts: Why could bad people make good art?
The "proof" that Erni was on Moscow's payroll soon came when you could see his poster "Atomkrieg Nein" on the streets, in 1954, an ugly emotional hate campaign in everybodie's opinion.
Nuclear power had a very positive image then, it was science based, clean, powerful, modern, as symbolized in Erik Nitsche's poster series "Atoms for peace" which I knew well and admired. Many far-sighted people predicted and hoped that Switzerland's future would be to build nuclear power stations for the world. We thought we were the most peaceful country of the world, no doubt because we had the strongest army, and to maintain this position, Switzerland needed atomic weapons. Imagine the outcry when some communist supported groups tried to enter an amendment into the constitution making atomic weapons illegal in Switzerland, using Erni's poster in their campaign. No way. For me, Erni's case was closed.
Some years later, in the early sixties, I was a physics student, proudly calling myself "atomic scientist", and took up a vacation job in one of the large chemical companies in Basel. Quite unexpectedly, I run into Erni's art again: There was a huge, beautiful and brilliant mural in the cafeteria. Again, I was plagued with doubt and confusion: Why would a capitalist enterprise commission such a monumental work of art from a communist painter?
The most personal and strongest encounter with an Erni poster came in 1983, when my mother died. My uncle and godfather helped me organize her funeral, and to cheer me up after everything had been arranged, he gave me a poster: It was Hans Erni's well known political poster "AHV Ja" from 1948. AHV is a governement run retirement and pension fund for everybody, something that is taken for granted today and universally considered a good thing. However, my godfather explained, it only came into existence in 1948, and it was a hard fight for the socialist parties to establish it, and they enlisted Erni's help to win the public vote. As a member of a city council, he had personally helped to put up the Erni posters in the streets, and liked them so much that he had kept a copy for himseld during all those thirtyfive years. This was the right time and occasion, he explained, to pass the poster on to the next generation, reminding me that I also would grow to be old and tired some day and appreciate the energy and solidarity of the younger people.