Born in Leipzig in 1904, French-German artist Hans Hartung was a key figure of 20th-century abstraction, known for his lyrical and gestural approach to painting and lithography. Born into a family of doctors, the artist began drawing at age six when attempting to capture lightning flashes during a storm. Of this experience, the artist noted: 'These flashes of lightening enabled me to understand the speed of the line, the desire to capture, in pencil or brush, the moment and they made me understand the urgent nature of spontaneity'. Beginning his studies in philosophy and art history at Leipzig University, Hartung later abandoned the course to attend art schools in Dresden, Leipzig, and Munich.Read More
Hans Hartung's paintings have a calligraphic quality, where scraping and spraying techniques result in dynamic forms across the surface. Exempt of all figurative elements, the artist's painting explore the tension between coloured areas and compositions in the foreground, created using a variety of tools, from spray guns to, in later years, paint-dripped branches from olive trees around his home and studio in Antibes. These paintings appear spontaneous; however, each painting was preceded by fastidious sketches. In relation to the balance between chance and control, Hartung expressed: 'At the beginning, I act in total freedom. Work, by following its own course, constrains me more and more, and I am less and less at liberty to choose'.
In 1926, Hartung visited the International Art Exhibition in Dresden, which exposed him to works by artists such as Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, and of artistic styles including Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism. In 1929, he married the Norwegian painter Anna-Eva Bergman, with whom he would buy two hectares of olive grove in Antibes, France, in the 1960s, where they settled to live and work in 1973. The artist's first exhibition took place in 1931 at the Kühl Gallery in Dresden, followed by an exhibition with his wife at Blomqvist Gallery in Oslo. During the early years of their marriage, Bergman and the artist attempted to settle in Berlin, but were forced into exile by the Nationalist Socialist regime. He settled in Paris, and made the acquaintance of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Calder, and Joan Miró, and the sculptor Julio González. During this period, Hans Hartung developed a gestural style defined by coloured backgrounds foregrounded by clusters of graphic forms. At the outbreak of the War, he joined the French Foreign Legion, but was later arrested by the Gestapo, who imprisoned him for seven months for having served in a foreign army, and for his 'degenerate' painting style. He re-joined the army upon his release, but was severely injured in the Belfort siege of 1944, which led to the amputation of his right leg. In 1945, he returned to Paris and resumed painting, earning French citizenship a year later.
In the post-war years, Hartung became a key figure of the Art Informel and Taschist movements, associated with artists such as Pierre Soulages and Jean Fautrier. In an Ocula Insight video walkthrough of Hans Hartung and Art Informel at Mazzoleni London (1 October 2019–18 January 2020), writer and historian Alan Montgomery notes that artists of the Art Informel movement share 'a very gestural approach to painting, and a lyrical approach to their abstraction.' Abstraction boomed in the 1950s, and in the 1960s the artist experimented with 'invading' the canvas with scratches, saying: 'What I love is to act on the canvas. To act? That is to scratch, to tear, to stain, to invade the canvas with colour, in brief everything which is not "to paint".' The artist's practice had a profound influence on artists working in Paris and beyond, with echoes of his work present in paintings by Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler, for example.
In 1986, Hartung suffered a major stroke, which led to his being wheelchair-bound until his death in 1989. Hans Hartung's artworks from this period are no less rigorous in their experimentation, however. Of spectacular scale, he used a spray gun to shoot paint across the canvas, completing most of his canvases after just a few minutes. He was awarded the 1956 prize for the Europe-Africa section at the Guggenheim International Award, and the International Grand Prize for painting at the 1960 Venice Biennale. Major group exhibitions have been held at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1937, organised by curator and critic Christian Zervos, and the Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris, organised by the artist Georges Mathieu, who organised further group exhibitions in April 1948 at the Galerie Colette Allendy (titled HWPSMTB—each letter drawn from the artists' names), and in July 1948 at the Galerie des Deux-Isles, titled White and Black. Major solo exhibitions of his work have occurred at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1975), and Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (1980). In the last decade, Hartung's works have been presented at the Palace of Fine Arts Beijing and National Museum, Nanjing (Hartung in China, 2005), as well as in Hans Hartung: Spontaneous Calculus, Pictures, Photographs, Film 1922–1989, which showcased his lifelong use of photography at Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig; Hans Hartung: Essential, Circula de Bellas Artes, Madrid (2008); Hans Hartung: The Gesture and the Method, Fondation Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence (2008); Hartung: Prints, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva (2011); Hans Hartung: L'Atelier du Geste, CCBB, Sao Paulo (2014); Hans Hartung and Photography, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen (2016); and Hans Hartung: La fabrique du gest, Paris Museum of Modern Art (2019).
Tessa Moldan | Ocula | 2019