HANS HARTUNG: A Constant Storm
January 12 – February 18, 2018
Hans Hartung (1904–1989) was born in Leipzig, Germany, into a family where paintings and music were always present. He was the son and grandson of physicians: his father involved in pharmaceutical research. Young Hans had a thing about lightning; he was captivated by the effects of energy as light, shadow, and space—sketchbooks filled with drawings of thunderbolts were known to his family as Hans’s Blitzbücker (Books of Lightning). Hartung acknowledged in his autobiography Self Portrait that this preoccupation influenced his mature paintings saying, “They gave me the sense of the speed of the line, the desire to grasp with the pencil or the brush the instantaneous.” From the earliest beginnings then, abstraction was on his mind. Astronomy was another life long fascination.
In 1924 Hartung studied history of art and philosophy at the University and Akadamie für graphische Künst und Kunstgewerbe, Leipzig. He also attended art schools in Dresden and Munich and, by the 1930s was living and working in Paris. After coming to the attention of the National Socialists in 1935 on a stay in Germany—as both an abstract painter and, simply because he had Jewish friends—he returned to live in France as a refugee. Such was Hartung’s anti Fascist commitment that he joined the French Foreign Legion to fight against Germany at the outbreak of World War II, loosing his right leg in action in 1944. In 1946 Hartung was granted French citizenship and continued to live in France, where he became a significant member of the post-war School of Paris. In 1973 Hartung and his wife the Norwegian painter Anna-Ewa Bergman (1909-1987) moved to a studio and home they had designed after buying an olive grove near Antibes on the French Riviera where they lived to the end of their lives—it is now the Hartung-Bergman Foundation, from where many of the paintings in this exhibition are loaned.
Occupying both floors of Perrotin’s Orchard Street Gallery, over sixty works from 1922 to 1989 make this a very substantial representation of Hartung’s career. The works are presented in a chronological order so, stage-by-stage developments can be seen as they occur. Despite wide recognition by the late 1940s—Hartung was seen as both a proponent of Art Informel and Taschism in Europe, and a variant of Abstract expressionism in America—he remains impossible to categorize, as is clear in this exhibition. From the early to the late paintings Hartung’s technical accomplishment is sublime, whatever medium or innovative means he deploys. It is not surprising that this artist avoided any ideological path given his experience of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. The consistency of Hartung’s interests, always subject to a renewal through innovation—figure-ground play, contrasts of light, apparent spontaneity of execution, fluid paint—may not prepare the viewer for the range of conceptual and, technical differences, with other artists to whom he may at first appear similar. Hartung transcribed many of his post-war small-scale works on paper to canvas using a grid to exactly reproduce the elements of the drawing. The vitality of the smaller work is not lost in enlargement, even though the spontaneity is replaced by conscious precision—in fact it’s not possible to tell that such a transcription has taken place.
Early works, for example, Untitled (1922) are exceptional in that the young artist immediately engages with abstraction, radical in this moment, and the watercolor still looks fresh and inventive. T1938-31 (1938) a small painting on wood could be seen as a precursor to Jackson Pollock’s mature paintings—black tempera is dripped and brushed on a white ground. Its connection to paintings from the late 1980s is remarkable, after years of change and using all kinds of unconventional tools, rakes, and brooms for example. In 1986 Hartung suffered a stroke, becoming mobile only in a wheelchair, but this didn’t stop him from repurposing a garden spray and other devices in order to send a stream of acrylic paint onto a canvas with a great deal of freedom. T1988-E24 (1988) is an example—open, beautiful, unfussy, technically brilliant—a wonderful painting.
Two Hans Hartung exhibitions were organized simultaneously at Simon Lee Gallery, London and Nahmad Contemporary, New York.