A s a child growing up in the German city of Leipzig, Hans Hartung (1904-1989) was terrified of thunderstorms. He used to fill notebook after notebook with zig-zag lines, in the hope they’d prevent lightning from harming him. Years later, when Hartung had established himself as one of the world’s top artists, he claimed his interest in abstraction could be traced back to those early drawings of electric flashes across the page.
Sadly, his zig-zags don’t really feature in a major retrospective of the artist’s work, Hans Hartung: La fabrique du geste, which opened at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art this week.
The show marks the 30th anniversary of the Franco-German’s death – as well as a notable upswing in his reputation over the past couple of years. Before 2017, none of his paintings had sold for more than €1 million at auction. Since 2017, two of them have: T1956-8 fetching €1.5 million and T1956-13 fetching an artist-record €2.7 million, both at Sotheby’s Paris.
Hartung made his name as a pioneer of gestural abstraction, a style en vogue on both sides of the Atlantic after the Second World War. In the United States it went by the name of Abstract Expressionism, in Paris by that of Art Informel or Tachisme (‘tache’ being the French word for spot or stain).
In both incarnations, it was an art that laid greater emphasis on process than on finish. Based in Paris, Hartung is frequently mentioned in the same breath as fellow Tachistes such as Pierre Soulages and Nicolas de Staël.
However, as the new retrospective makes clear, Hartung was someone whose art – and life – were exceptional and needs to be considered on his own terms.
The son of a successful physician, he’d hit upon abstract art before he was even out of his teens. He came close to studying at the Bauhaus, but opted to attend the Kunstakademie in Dresden instead. In the late 1920s, he moved to Paris, where his work started to show the influence of both Kandinsky and the Cubists.
The latter were dubbed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, which meant a return to his homeland in 1935 was always likely to end badly. Hartung narrowly avoided arrest for trying to sell his paintings in Berlin and promptly fled Germany – for good.
Not a lot of his work from before the Second World War survives. During the conflict itself, he joined the French Foreign Legion – fighting against his own countrymen in North Africa and Alsace. Badly wounded in combat, he was forced to have a leg amputated in 1944.
At the war’s end, Hartung became a French citizen; was awarded the Croix de Guerre military decoration; and embarked on the art for which he’s best known. Essentially, this consisted of paintings with energetic, vigorously brushed motifs – at times linear, at times swirling – which look somewhat similar to Eastern calligraphy.
At first sight, these works might seem to be the result of improvisation; of the sort of on-the-spot, artistic flourishes we associate with the Abstract Expressionists. Interestingly, however, Hartung’s paintings from the late-1940s and 1950s were all carefully planned. So much so that they were, in fact, meticulous transfers to canvas of previously completed drawings – via use of a grid technique.
The aforementioned T1956-8 and T1956-13 both fall into this category. Likewise T 1950-3, which appears in the Modernités sale at Sotheby’s Paris on 16 October.
Hartung was never an artist to stand still, though, and in 1960 – the year he won the International Grand Prize for painting at the Venice Biennale – he changed artistic direction. From now on, he’d work directly, and very expressively, on canvas. Which is to say, without preparatory drawing.
The difference between the pre- and post-1960 works isn’t immediately obvious, though judging by the two canvases from the 1960s being offered at Modernités on October 16 – T1963-R48 and T1962-L17 – Hartung came to grow fond of atmospheric colouring.
The following decade, he and his wife (fellow painter, Anna-Eva Bergman) moved to Antibes on the Mediterranean coast. They’d see out the rest of their lives there – Hartung continuing to make art till the very end. He experimented with a number of alternatives to brushes for applying his paint, olive branches and rakes among them. Even two debilitating strokes couldn’t stop him. Hartung made much of his work in the 1980s from a wheelchair, with a spray gun, when he was physically no longer able to hold a brush.
His late canvases have been the subject of shows at a string of commercial galleries worldwide in the past two years – and now feature prominently at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art. It’s a retrospective full of visual thunderbolts and lightning.