Through the extraordinary art of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, we can get to know a great chunk of French history, it’s notable figures and events. And not only France, but also South Africa, Italy, Palestine, Chile. We can witness the urban re-birth of the great Caravaggio masterpieces, the lives and deaths of the world’s famous movie directors, poets, mathematics assistants, writers, political activists. Their portraits will have inhabited the walls of the places they lived, worked and died in, their haunting postures will have reminded us of their greatness and their often tragic destinies. And they will continue to do so, just like they have been for the last fifty years.
Ernest Pignon-Ernest is the veteran of urban art in France and the world, an artist who does portraiture in the most original of ways, a visionnaire who continues to inspire younger generations and to re-establish himself as the legend of his craft over and over again. His practice explores places, delves into their spirits, curiously asks questions about its history, its place in the minds and the memory of those who lived there. His are the journeys into light, space, colors, trips beneath the surface of locations that carry so many facts with them, so many testimonies, so much symbolism.
During his half-decade long artistic career, Ernest Pignon-Ernest created a rather impressive oeuvre, and some of his best works were also sold at auctions in his homeland France.
Executed in 1997, Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s Artaud, Hopital d’ivry was dedicated to Antonin Artaud, a French dramatist, poet, essayist, actor, and director, one of the most important figures of the 20th century theatre in France, but also in Europe. Through his haunting image of a naked man seen from behind, the artist pays homage to Artaud on the walls of d’Ivry hospital in the suburbs of Paris, where he spent the last days of his turbulent and difficult life. The image also features what would be Artaud’s particular and often described as disturbing drawings, which were the result of his mental illness - schizophrenia.
The Artaud, Hopital d’Ivry photograph sold for $5,510 at Artcurial Paris in 2014.
Between 1988 and 1995, Ernest Pignon-Ernest studied the exquisite history of Naples, Italy, infused with Greek, Roman and Christian mythology, on its very streets. Through a series of imagery, he explored the rich history of myths regarding different characters, rituals, rites; evoking the spirit of Virgil, Caravaggio, pagan cults and Christian traditions. Pignon-Ernest is particularly fascinated by this city, which he describes as ”wedged between Vesuvius and the boiling lands of Solfatara”, and this drawing represents a study for one of his pieces.
The Etude pour la Porte de Demeter, Naples drawing went for $5,910 at Deburaux & Associes Paris in 2013.
Expulsions represents an image of Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s parents, who were expelled from their own home in Nice, carrying their belongings in a walk towards an uncertain future. This event has had great influence on the work of the French artist, as he bases much of it on the feeling of being driven out out of the place’s history. The picture also stands as the depiction of the many renovations happening in Paris between 1975 and 1980 - thus, it was pasted on a ruined building in Paris.
Expulsions mixed media on paper reached $5,950 at Artcurial Paris in 2006.
Before his 2015 review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life and death, Ernest Pignon-Ernest executed his first tribute to the Italian movie director through an image posted in Certaldo, in the province of Florence, Italy. This piece is a study of the one which eventually ended up in the birthplace of Decameron. Pignon-Ernest was always fascinated by Pasolini’s commitment, his relations to the body, sex, love, even death; the way he himself treated the great myths that still influence our society, like Oedipus, Jesus Christ or Medea.
The 1982 Etude pour Pasolini Intervention sur Image Toscanne mixed media on paper achieved $6,550 at Artcurial Paris in 2006.
Passing through the Landes forest, Ernest Pignon-Ernest came to realise he never considered the relationship between man and nature in his art. He also understood that he had to change his approach to the woods, as it was quite different from the urban environment he was used to. And so, he created Arbrorigènes, a sort of “rural readymades”, sculptures of mankind made of nature itself and becoming one with it. Through them, the artist salutes the process of photosynthesis and the vital part it plays in our lives. This work on paper represents the study for one of the pieces.
Dessin pour les Aborigenes too was sold for $6,550 at Artcurial Paris in 2006
Among the works which ended up on the streets of Naples in 1998 is Homme Debout, demonstrating Pignon-Ernest’s extraordinary ability to depict a human being with such simplicity and impact. Black chalk and paper - that’s all he needs to turn his visions into reality, playing with shadows and light, evoking the very essence of an emotion. These artist’s statements tell the story of a certain place by standing right within it, as its integral part and recalling its history and importance.
In 2014, Pierre Berge Paris sold Homme Debout, Napoli print for $9,830.
In this charcoal on paper, dating back to 1995, Ernest Pignon-Ernest drew a study which is a part of a series dedicated to Virgil, the ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. Through the artist’s work, he is often depicted through the eyes of Dante, who also involved Virgil as his guide through hell and purgatory, in his world-famous work Divine Comedy.
Etude (Serie des Virgiles) went for $10,100 at Tajan Paris in 1999.
In Naples, again, this piece was pasted at the bottom of a building, and from afar, it seemed as though this “man lying down” barely made it onto the surface of the sidewalk and is now ready to die on it. It is yet another clear reference to the Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting masters, their religious and mythological imagery placed inside churches and local museums. Only, the art of Ernest Pignon-Ernest graces the streets, as it is pasted on the walls for everyone to see, wonder about, reflect upon.
Homme Allonge, Napoli achieved $12,300 at Pierre Berge Paris in 2014.
Executed on wood using mixed media, Sans Titre participated at an auction sale in support of the children of Madagascar.Each of the works on display, created by 75 artists in total, started off at $600 euros. Ernest Pignon-Ernest, as the urban art legend, managed to achieve the highest price of the evening. His sculptural work sees many hands painted in mesmerising greys and whites emerge from the surface of his doors, some asking for help and some giving it.
Sans Titre was sold at Christie’s Paris in 2013 for $20,200.
Drawn on newsprint, the David et Goliath piece led its ephemeral life on the streets of, you’ll guess, Naples, in 1990. The image evokes the Old Testament, and the famous story of David and Goliath, also interpreted by Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s favourite painter, Caravaggio. The painting in question, executed in 1609, like the 1990 drawing, sees David holding Goliath’s head by the hair, in a marvellous display of deep shadows and heavenly lighting striking the protagonist. Ernest Pignon-Ernest is also powerful in its own right, gracing the walls of the historical Italian city.
The David et Goliath mixed media works went for $27,000 at the 2014 Artcurial Paris sale.