A French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, once described the painter Hans Hartung as ‘one of those who constructed the new pictorial language of our time’. That assessment was true enough, though quite how the French-German artist came by his highly influential method of expression is mysterious.
Born in Leipzig in 1904, Hartung was already painting in an entirely abstract style while still an untutored schoolboy, suggesting that he had somehow absorbed the methods and philosophy of Wassily Kandinsky despite never having seen any of the Russian Expressionist’s work.
A series of limpid and tentatively emotional watercolours produced when Hartung was 18 show that, while not yet eloquent, he already possessed the vocabulary with which he would so fluently express himself from the late 1940s onwards.
Astonishingly, it would be another four years before he attended an exhibition of contemporary painting in Dresden and saw work — by Kandinsky, Joan Miró and others — that chimed with his own ambition to ‘act on canvas’ and inspired him to render with pigment the otherwise inexpressible feelings that swirled within him.
If his style appeared to be spontaneously present, its development would be hindered and ultimately liberated by world events. After studying art in Leipzig, Dresden and Munich, Hartung, whose work was deemed ‘degenerate’ by Hitler’s regime, left Germany for good in 1935.
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Settling in Paris, where he became assistant to the Catalan sculptor and Picasso collaborator Julio González, Hartung painted, gradually removing any traces of the figurative from his work, and awaited the inevitable outcome of Germany’s aggression. As a foreign national intent on defending his adopted country against the land of his birth, Hartung had one option: in 1939, he joined the French Foreign Legion, donning the famous képi blanc immortalised in Beau Geste.
When France surrendered, Hartung travelled back to the Vichy-controlled south of the country. He was arrested and detained by the authorities, locked in a red-painted cell in the hope that it would disrupt his vision.
In 1942, with the Gestapo ever more vicious in their pursuit of anti-Nazi elements, Hartung moved to Spain and then to North Africa where he re-enlisted in the legion, now part of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army, and took part in the Allied invasion of the French Riviera.
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As the Germans withdrew, the legion pursued them. In a bloody battle at Belfort near Strasbourg, Hartung, stretchering a fallen comrade to safety, was severely wounded. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry. His right leg was amputated above the knee.
War shifted Hartung’s world view. Art became the truest expression of his freedom, an escape from the hindrance of his injuries, physical and psychological. Now a French citizen, he emerged as a leading figure of the Taschists, a group of lyrical abstractionists that included, among others, Pierre Soulages, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Nicolas de Staël.
Working with a mix of acrylic paint, ink, chalk and pastels on canvas or cardboard, Hartung would scratch, scrape and reapply pigment in the whirls and thatched lines that came to be emblematic of his painting. While Soulages worked in black and white, Hartung used a broad palette of translucent colours, creating something fluid and apparently intuitive. Yet although his work appeared spontaneous, there was a strict method to it.
Hartung loved astronomy and studied mathematics, naming his paintings with a system of letters and numbers resembling some arcane military code. There was both pattern and precision to his work. In the 1950s, he would often begin by making a small ‘model’ of a painting, perfecting that before creating the larger version by employing a gridded system similar to that used by industrial designers.
As a consequence, Hartung’s work lacks the raw — at times almost physical — aggression of his US counterparts. His expressions of feeling were shaped by rationality. He had witnessed the chaos of unmoderated, violent emotion and had no illusions about its worth.
In 1973, Hartung and his wife, the Norwegian artist Anna-Eva Bergman, left Paris for Antibes and Champs des Oliviers, a home and studio Hartung had designed. The move to Provence saw a change in technique. His work became less structured, literally more organic. Taking branches from the trees outside his studio, Hartung dipped them in paint and thrashed them across the canvas, making vivid explosions of colour that hinted at sunlit liberation.
‘Death in itself is not very welcome,’ Hartung wrote in his 1976 autobiography Self-Portrait. ‘But I fear above all else that it will come before I have time to say everything I feel.’
A stroke in 1986 left him wheelchair-bound, but, as undaunted by this as he had been by the loss of his leg, Hartung changed his means of expressing those feelings once more. No longer able to hold branch or brush, he instead used an industrial paint-gun. Gallant, inspirational and creatively influential, Hartung carried on busily working until his death in December 1989.
Hans Hartung: La fabrique du geste is on at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris until 1 March 2020