There are obstinate and tenacious human and artistic events that go beyond words. Hans Hartung is one of these
The exhibition “The factory of gesture”, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris until March 1st, 2020, is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the surprising work of this German-born French artist. This series of works shows how Hartung managed to transfer the extraordinary strength with which he faced life into his work. The war, the fear, the injuries, the disability or the depression that took hold of him after the first divorce did not stop him. He survived everything. For the most part a painter, he was also a sculptor and engraver of great originality.
Hans Hartung at work in his atelier in Antibes, 1975
He could have spent his life in a cage, instead he broke every barrier creating art beyond all physical and mental limits. In his own words: “… I want to remain free … do not let myself be trapped, neither by others nor by myself”.
His life is a novel that passes through numerous tragedies of the 20th century. An abstract artist in the early years, ever since studying art in Germany in the 1920s, he would turn his art into a powerful affirmation of his fierce persona in his desire to survive. In 1939 World War II found him in Paris where, because of his German origins, he is considered an enemy, which will lead him to join the Foreign Legion. This experience came with a price. As a result of the serious injuries he suffered, his right leg would be amputated. What for others could be an obstacle, this would become an opportunity. It is precisely his physical problems that will lead him to study ingenious methods to “spread” colour and “gestures” that were not of the pictorial tradition.
“Sans titre”, watercolor on paper – 1935
“T1973-E12”, Acrylic on canvas -1973
“T1934-2, 1934”, Oil on canvas – 1934
The title of the exhibition fits perfectly. It is precisely this gesture, that is, the original way in which he applied colour on the canvas, which unites all his experiments. At first, it is a hand that moves a brush. Soon Hartung resorted to unusual tools like brooms, bamboo canes, olive branches and other “brushes” that he would never reveal to the public for professional jealousy. “Gesture” for Hartung also became the movement of an air gun that sprayed colour on the canvas. In his last few years, when his disability forced him into a wheelchair, the air gun was no longer enough. He decided on more powerful tools, like the zip-line that is used to spread the plaster.
Making use of these unusual techniques, he created “dreamlike” works with a truly original pictorial feel. There are no rules, not even in colours that are indifferently clear and bright or dark. The pictorial approach is sometimes created by swarms of drops of colour splashed out of the “gun”. Like rain clouds, they remain suspended for a moment and then settle on the surface of the canvas, creating images that go beyond realism, but also the abstract. On the other hand, we sometimes find rational parallel lines of colour drawn with a gardener’s rake.
“T1947-12”, Oil on canvas – 1947
“Sans titre”, Ink on paper – 1955
“T1962-U8”, Vinyl painting on canvas – 1962
“T1966-H41”, Vinyl painting on canvas – 1966
The originality of the instruments used contribute greatly to this apparent difference in outcomes – the strokes are certainly aggressive, yet also with the ingenuity of a child playing: “… scribbling, scratching, acting on the canvas, finally painting, they seem to me such spontaneous and simple human actions”.
Behind this clear expressive freedom there is nevertheless a perfect mastery of his means, the measure of the gesture, the control of the arm’s power and the calibrated management of these tools. His compositions combine impetuous gesture, the violent marks of pigments on the surface of the painting, with the purity of artistic intentions that have freed themselves from imitation of the real. In essence, he takes painting to zero degrees, its purest essence outside of any pre-constituted construction. He sums this up by saying, “Energy is a force that can be embodied in every form”.
“P1973-B71”, Acrylic on baryta cardboard – 1973
“T1982-E15, 1982”, Oil on canvas – 1982
“T1989- K35”, Acrylic on canvas – 1989
Hartung’s art does not lack intellectuality, as it might seem. On the contrary, he was nourished by a profound knowledge of past artists, in particular by Rembrandt, from whom he felt deep anguish and admired the use of colour that was full of vibrations and personal fears.
Hans Hartung reminds us that life is persistence, and that art in the modern world must be a representation of emotion, not the mechanical reproduction of reality.
Anna Maria Calabretta