Hans Hartung (1904-1989)


‘Hartung’s canvases are analysed much less in terms of content than in terms of dynamism and radiance. What is most remarkable in them is the tension reconciled with an extreme degree of refinement.’ (M. Conil Lacoste)

Hans Hartung was born in Leipzig in 1904 to a family of doctors passionate about music and painting. His vocation was clear from the age of six, when he tried to ‘catch’ and draw lightening just before the roar of thunder. After two years spent in Basel, where, passionate about astronomy and photography, he built a telescope that let him see ‘fragments of the real’, he went to high school in Dresden until 1924. There he developed such a passion for Rembrandt, Frans Hals, El Greco and Goya, as well as for the German Expressionists Oskar Kokoschka and Emil Nolde, that he made copies of their work (not precise copies but rather loose adaptations). Hartung’s compositions are simplified in coloured masses; series of watercolours follow in 1922 which are already completely free of figurative subjects, composed of intense strokes of colours (thanks to aniline). ‘The mark becomes free, it can express itself by its form, by its intensity, by its rhythm, by its violence, by its volume…’ (Hans Hartung, Autoportrait, 1976).

The young Hartung completed his humanities before enrolling at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1925, thereafter he undertook numerous trips in Europe during which he met Anna-Eva Bergman, a young Norwegian painter, who became his wife in 1929. Faced with the rise of Nazism, he left Germany, and after many tribulations he returned to Paris in 1934 to remain permanently. He became friends with Jean Hélion and Henri Goetz, made the acquaintance of Alberto Magnelli, César Domela, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Calder, Miró, and Julio González. Hartung as man and artist finally emerged from isolation.

He was without means, however: installed at a café terrace, he ordered café-crèmes so that he would be given ink and paper to draw. Thus are born black ink whirlpool compositions, drawn with closed eyes, to calm his anxiety. With these works, the artist immediately manifested his motivation for abstraction: it is neither the fruit of a theoretical or historical search, but rather the result of an inner necessity.

Adding to material and emotional difficulties (divorce and remarriage with Roberta González, the sculptor’s daughter) is the outbreak of war in 1939, which led him to fight for France in the French Foreign Legion, and following numerous incidents resulted in the amputation of his leg. Upon his return to Paris, he was decorated for his service, and granted French citizenship.

The post-war years saw the emergence of Abstraction on the global art scene: Hartung participated in successive group and solo exhibitions following his 1947 solo exhibition at Galerie Lydia Conti, which was received by critics and the public as a major discovery. He soon thereafter made the acquaintance of Gérard Schneider, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, Willi Baumeister, and Mark Rothko, and in their company, became recognised as one of the leaders of abstract art and one of the pioneers of Lyrical Abstraction, as well as one of the forerunners of Action Painting.

Hartung found Anna-Eva again during a retrospective at Musée de Bâle in 1952 and does not leave her again. In 1964 they made an expedition by boat to the north of Norway, from which he brought back thousands of photographs which were later exhibited.

Always on a quest for new experimentations, Hartung in the 1960s began using other types of tools – pistol, roller, large brush – in addition to vinyl and acrylic paints, new media that dried fast and were therefore conducive to painting with speed and spontaneity. He moved to Antibes in 1973 where his printmaking work led him to adopt even more new instruments and techniques, catalysing an increasingly impulsive creative practice: ‘Scribbling, scratching, acting on the canvas, painting finally seems to me to be a human activity as immediate, spontaneous, and simple as song, dance, or the play of an animal that runs, paws, or snorts.’

The completed work is no longer of interest to Hartung, as he explained: ‘I have no desire to hang the paintings on the walls… even in my studio, the paintings and drawings are all facing the wall.’

From then on, exhibitions, prizes (International Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1960), and prestigious nominations (elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1977) multiply equally in France as well as in Germany and Austria, with two German museums naming a permanent exhibition hall in his honour (Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst in Munich in 1982, and Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt in 1984).

The oeuvre of Hans Hartung is very well represented in public collections in Europe and the United States (Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Tate Gallery in Londres, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, etc.), as well as in private collections, such as the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art in Geneva.

(Martine Heudron)

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