Hans Hartung, T-1956-8, 1956
From his first remarkable works at the beginning of the 1920s, until his death in the Antibes studio in 1989, Hans Hartung’s essentially pictorial practice bore an internal aesthetic tension, the result of a to-and-fro between upsurge and control, disorder and measure, sensation and concept. This fundamental complexity confused until very recently the historical reception of this precursor and protagonist of essential pictorial movements such as Abstract Expressionism, action painting, lyrical abstraction or even informel art. Critics often highlight his Romanesque life – the artist was evicted from his native Germany in 1935 by the Nazis, and then fought the Nazi regime alongside the Allied Forces as part of the Foreign Legion, and lost a leg on the battlefield.
But critics are particularly interested in the 1950s period, of which the present painting T-1956-8 is characteristic, particularly in terms of the system set up by the artist at the end of the 1930s and that he abandoned only in 1960. This technique consisted of squaring the canvas and then transferring very precisely onto a linen canvas, freehand studies on paper – this technique is more often associated with figurative painting, where a narrative scene or at least images are transferred and not, as here, streaks of paint deposited by a paintbrush or other tools. Paintings with atmospheric and sometimes monochrome backgrounds such as T-1956-8 are thus inhabited by dynamic silhouettes, totally deprived of density or volume – with Hartung space is never hollowed or raised but often arising from a foliage of successive planes. Emerging as much out of a gestural surge as from the careful labour of transfer, these works sometimes required a month of work form the artist. Through this transposition, nothing less than a real sign of manual execution is produced, a sign that translates the artist’s conceptual distance from sacrosanct expressivity, so characteristic of post-war art. In other words, the electrical beauty of the initial stridency, of the shock of physical energy brought to the paper in a few seconds, is not only preserved but literally amplified.
This logic will announce the work of others, such as the American Franz Kline, of whom we know today only his gestural and architectured abstraction, which he began only in 1950 and stemmed from the enlargement of his sketches onto huge canvases. Well before Roy Lichenstein’s Brushstrokes (in 1965), Hartung’s vigourous brushstrokes, at least between 1938 and 1960, were both authentic traces of the painter’s action and pure fabrication. If the artist never concealed this method of transferring, he was little inclined to advertise it, in all likelihood to the extent that only the efficiency of the pictorial result counted in his eyes. Because this method of enlargement, this blow up proved to be all the more complex on a semantic level as it was both the representation of the traced line and the indisputable vector of a powerful expression. This indirect process still disrupts today a long-lived fantasy in the general reception of his career: that of a pure formal upsurging. In other words, the aesthetic impact of Hartung’s paintings – fulgurant and ethereal – ensues from a carefully thought out process and from a complex relationship with sensorial reality. The painter’s supposed calligraphic spontaneity was consistent with an organised and systematic research, a constant analysis of the instinctive upsurging, and this through multiple practices such as drawing, painting, pastel, engraving, lithographs or photography.
In 1953, Jean Tinguely’s first Métamatics, veritable painting machines, parodied the gestural and convulsive manner of artists such as Hartung. Each spectator, by activating a switch, could become the “co-author” of a drawing. It is significant that Hartung purchased a copy, kept at the Hartung-Bergman Foundation. Duly signed on the back, in the space provided by Tinguely to this effect, the drawing appears as an amused avowal of the German-French artist’s distance from his own spontaneity. From 1960, the artist favoured moreover the expansion of formats and a more direct approach to the final canvas, without any preparatory studies or transfers. However everything was already anchored in the work, which was now the result of the crossover of logical reasonings that had for a long time been dissociated, even opposed by historiography: immediacy, stemming from a quick and violent gesture; the transcription of the sensitive experience of natural phenomena; the pictorial frame and constant technical experimentation, and finally, the conception of a purely abstract art, which refuses mimesis and anecdote.
Matthieu Poirier is an art historian. He is the author of the monograph Hans Hartung. A constant Storm (Editions Perrotin, 2017).
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