Ernst Eisenmayer: The Dignity of Life

At 92, the Austrian-born Modernist painter and sculptor holds fiercely to his vision of art

Exiled artist Ernst Eisenmayer | Photo: Sonja Frank

Eisenmayer's chalk drawing, Prisoners Suspected of Trying to Escape | Photo: S. Frank

Ernst Eisenmayer

Exiled artist Ernst Eisenmayer | Photo: Sonja Frank

Ernst Eisenmayer was just 18 when he was arrested in Saarbrücken in 1938, as he tried to escape to France. As a consequence, he was deported to Dachau. Now, the 92-year-old painter and sculptor looked me straight in the eyes as he paused to gather his thoughts. In his penetrating look is still written the fear the Jewish artist must have felt as a young man.

“In order to reach the concentration camp, we had to be transferred in Munich. As we were hurried across the station,” he remembered, “people were laughing, or stared at us indifferently. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

Eisenmayer is one of the last living survivors of the Dachau Concentration Camp in Bavaria, and on that warm day in October, the sense of the suffering was palpable, as if the past were with us in the room.

We met in Eisenmayer’s tiny, well-appointed room at the Maimonides Zentrum, the newly built nursing home of the Viennese Jewish Community, joined by the artist Sonja Frank, editor of the book Young Austria. ÖsterreicherInnen im britischen Exil 1938 – 1947 (See “Austrians in Exile”, TVR Sept. 2012). It was a beautiful day outside, which made the contrast to the subject all that stronger.


Exile in the U.K.

Eisenmayer’s descriptions of past events were vivid, his story revealing of his artwork, some of which was displayed on the white wall above his desk. It is powerful work, revealing how he was able to transform his experience into an eminent career as Modernist painter and sculptor with an international career.

Fortune played a role, and Eisenmayer eventually escaped in 1939, when a visa was guaranteed for him by the Brierley family in Oxford, who had already taken in and adopted his younger brother Paul. With this guarantee, he was released from the camp.

Eisenmayer’s chalk drawing, Prisoners Suspected of Trying to Escape | Photo: S. Frank

A few years later, he did some sketches of his experiences, among others the 1944 chalk drawing “KZ Dachau. Fluchtverdächtige müssen Steine schleppen” (Prisoners Suspected of Trying to Escape). The original is on display at the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance in Vienna.

People experience exile differently, and for Eisenmayer, it was on the whole positive.

“I did not feel I was in exile, as my emigration to the U.K. was a pleasant change,” Eisenmayer eyed us defiantly: “because it was a great opportunity escaping the Nazihölle” (Nazi hell). Even when interned like many other émigrés as an Enemy Alien in 1940, it did not appear to change his view of his new home, the U.K.

After his release from the Central Camp Douglas on the Isle of Man, Eisenmayer began working at a tool-and-die factory. Still without formal training as an artist, he found some of what became his most characteristic subjects: labourers, the unemployed, people queuing for groceries.

In Oxford, the Eisenmayer brothers founded a branch of Young Austria, the youth organisation of Austrians in Exile in the U.K. during World War II. Its extensive network brought him in contact with Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had also fled to London when Nazis declared his art as “degenerate”.

Impressed with one of Eisenmayer’s pieces, Kokoschka invited the young artist to come by to talk about his work whenever he finished a painting. “Kokoschka became like an understanding uncle to me,” Eisenmayer said of the great master in a 1995 interview. “I visited him frequently at his studio, and I still recall our conversations with pleasure.”


From painting to sculpture

In 1946, Eisenmayer trained with British architect and painter Victor Pasmore – the pioneer of Abstract Art in the U.K. His creative output that followed thereafter, particularly in the early 1960s, was uncompromising, often depicting the apocalyptic mood of big cities that reduce human beings to cogs in the machinery.

“As an artist, I was always fascinated by the technical aspects of art, especially the technical possibilities of different materials,” Eisenmayer explained his transition from painting to sculpture, working primarily with steel, bronze and stone as materials – a gradual shift:

“I used to develop my own tools for that,” he added, with visible pride.

Since 1961, Eisenmayer exhibited regularly across the U.K. and in the United States, occasionally also in Vienna, including at the Secession in 1967 or, most prominently, in 2002 at the Jewish Museum, with an extensive retrospective entitled About the Dignity of Man.

Art is defined by three challenges, he wrote in the catelogue: the challenge of the subject, the challenge of the material and the challenge of life itself. In retrospect, Eisenmayer had to admit that parts of his own work still puzzled him: “Looking at my own work today and trying to understand after the best part of a lifetime, many pieces retain an element of mystery.”

At the end of our conversation, Eisenmayer left us with a final, yet uncompromising message:

“The work of an artist speaks for itself,” he said. “If it’s bad art, it’s not worth talking about it.”

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