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Celebrated Swiss artist Erni dies at age 106
Hans Erni in his studio in 2010. Photo: Barbara Hess

Celebrated Swiss artist Erni dies at age 106

Malcolm Curtis · 22 Mar 2015, 18:51

Published: 22 Mar 2015 18:51 GMT+01:00

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Erni, who just celebrated his birthday last month, died peacefully on Saturday at a clinic in Lucerne, his daughter, Simone Fornara-Erni, announced on her Facebook page.

The painter and sculptor was creating art in his workshop up until quite recently.

Known for his figurative paintings and doves symbolizing peace, Erni worked for clients that included the federal government, the Red Cross and the chemical industry in Basel.

During his long career he produced murals, tapestries, mosaics, sculptures, ceramic art and medals, as well as designing stamps, hundreds of posters and illustrations for books.

In 2009, at the age of 100, he completed a 60-metre-long ceramic fresco that decorates the entrance to the United Nations in Geneva.

Doves feature prominently in the fresco and Erni told journalists he hoped it would inspire people working at the UN “to think about peace” very time they passed it.

Erni's mural at the entrance to the UN in Geneva. Photo: Flickr/Leo Soares

He was born in Lucerne on February 21st 1909 to a poor family with seven brothers and sisters and a father who worked as a mechanic on steamboats plying Lake Lucerne, according to a report from the ATS news agency.

After a training in architecture and surveying, Erni pursued studies in art in Paris in the 1920s, then in Berlin.

In the early 1930s, he became an exponent of abstract art in Paris, where he met the likes of Picasso, Braque, Arp, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Henry Moore and Calder.

But in 1939, he repudiated abstract art with a figurative mural 100 metres long commissioned for the Swiss national exposition in Zurich.

The mural, called “Die Schweiz, das Ferienland der Völker” (Switzerland, vacationland for the people), raised his profile to that of a national figure in Switzerland.

However, when he became a Marxist after the Second World War, Erni said his political affiliation cost him many commissions.

He changed his beliefs after the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

Erni received many awards and honours during his later career and was made an honorary citizen of Lucerne in 2005.

The following year, he received a medal for his life’s work in Saint Paul de Vence, in the south of France, where he had a secondary residence.

Erni was a “an intelligent and endearing personality who lived by and for his art,” Swiss Culture Minister said in a comment reported by ATS.

“I had the opportunity to meet Hans Erni and his wife at their home in Lucerne in 2013,” Berset said.

“It was a moving encounter.”

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Berset tweeted a tribute to an “artist of multiple talents” and a “significant and endearing figure of our time”.

Lucerne Mayor Stefan Roth said he was “incredibly touched” by Erni’s passing, national broadcaster RTS reported.

During his meetings with the artist, Roth said he was impressed by the “immense creative force” of his fellow citizen, who was also Lucerne's oldest man. 

For a look at selected works of the artist, check out this YouTube video:

For more news from Switzerland, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Malcolm Curtis (news@thelocal.ch)

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