Obituary: Ernst Eisenmayer

From exile to exile: Austrian artist's "great aesthetic revaluation"


The Austrian-born painter and sculptor Ernst Eisenmayer, who survived Dachau as a teenager, has died aged 97. He was incarcerated there after being arrested in Saarbrücken in 1938 during a failed escape to France from Vienna. He was also believed to be Dachau’s last Austrian survivor.

One of the most graphic drawings of his experiences by this celebrated Modernist remained on the wall above his desk; the past was not another country to him, but ever present. Like many survivors, the stricken look remained in his eyes whenever he called the past to mind. He told the Vienna Review about his wartime experiences in 1992: “In order to reach the concentration camp, we had to be transferred in Munich. As we were hurried across the station, people were laughing, or stared at us indifferently.”

He added: “I looked around and tried to find out if anyone would show any sign of sympathy. There was nobody. And that’s still one of my worst experiences, worse than the insults and the punches, and so on. There was not a single person showing sympathy or interest. They turned away. “

Unsurprisingly, many of Eisenmayer’s paintings and sculptures share a sense of dislocation. Whether abstract or figurative, they are often geometric and sometimes cubic in composition. His breadth of vision is astonishing. Some are graphic, some quite delicate, and some are cartoons. The purity of his line is faultless, as is his ability to capture expression, even in the roughest of sketches. In a sketch named Dignity of Life he portrays camp workers in striped prison garb carrying heavy loads, watched by a nonchalant Nazi kommandant. The expression on each prisoner’s face is of detached determination to get through the day. Eisenmayer’s work has been exhibited in Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, the US, Japan and Italy.

Ernst Eisenmayer was born in Vienna, the son of poor Austro-Hungarian Jewish parents, Jakob Eisenmayer, an electrician, and his wife, Ester (née Seidl). After secondary school he attended evening classes in painting and drawing, until his arrest at the border and his deportation to Dachau, where many of his drawings have survived.

Fortunately his younger brother Paul had reached Britain as a Kindertransportee, where his guardian, Professor JL Brierley, promised to sponsor Ernst in Britain. This secured his release from Dachau in April 1939, where he was possibly one of the last prisoners freed before the outbreak of the Second World War. He had been arrested during his attempt to reach France from Vienna following the annexation of Austria in 1938 . He was then 18 years of age.

However, arrival in Britain proved something of a Pyrrhic victory. In 1940 Eisenmayer was sent to five different British internment camps, including Onchan on the Isle of Man, where he made objects for warehouse exhibitions and wrote for the camp newspaper. His monochrome Violinist at Onchan, was later published as a stamp motif of the Isle of Man.

In 1944 he showed work for the first time in an exhibition on Austrian art in exile. Two years later he enrolled at Camberwell College of Arts and studied there until 1947. Initially he focused on painting but later began creating sculptures and works with welded steel, bronze and stone. Acquiring British citizenship after the war, he worked temporarily as a toolmaker, painting in his free time under the guidance of the Austrian artist, poet and playwright Oskar Kokoschka, who became a key influence and supporter of his career. The City of Vienna awarded him the Medal of Honour for his artistic work.

A short film by Frances Lloyd on the early work of Eisenmayer was shown at the Jewish Museum of Art as part of their 2009 exhibition, “Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain 1933-45.” It describes the artist’s deportation from Munich central station. The curator Rachel Dickinson considered his contribution to the exhibition as the “greatest aesthetic revelation.”

In 1975 Eisenmayer left England for Italy where he lived until 1988, then moving to Amsterdam until 1996. He returned to Vienna and lived in the Maimonides Center, a Jewish retirement home. His last two retrospective exhibitions were Art beyond Exile and The Dignity of Man.

Eisenmayer’s two marriages, to Marcia Street and then to Lidy Bos, ended in divorce. He is survived by his daughters Janet and Julia from his first marriage and his son Thomas from his second; two grandchildren, Alexander and Sarah, and a great-granddaughter Rose, aged one. Another granddaughter, Timna, 23, died last year,



Ernst Eisenmayer: born September 18, 1920. Died March 23, 2018.

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