Domenico D’Oora


The glance is mystified by the slender outcomes of some contemporary art, which to be judged, always needs, reckless theoretical justifications. Whereas, in presence of the outstanding works on paper and pictorial works of Hans Hartung, sharing their sophisticated beauty, there is no need of display, of explication, we become companion of their effusive power of amazing, of giving rise to thoughts and associations, of involving the vision, the mind and the heart, in immediate, unlimited meditations. Their great will and happiness of aesthetic search, the freshness and executive vigour, the suppressed and yet evident ethic rigour, with explicit spontaneity outshine the superfluous, unnecessary getting worked up of so much mediocre contemporary painting, which, without motivations, in lifeless repetitions and transformations, can’t seek, neither make perceiving an aim, a promise, and in this way, it can not even hope to come across, on its way, in any revelations, possible, essential disclosures, so renouncing to the founding motivation of art.

During an interview in 1969, talking about his drawings of the twenties, and referring to a drawing representing a lion, which was a work of the beloved Rembrandt, Hartung attested “It is really the stroke itself which expresses the lion power; the stroke itself - in itself, and not in what it represents or what it shows...”.1

The predilection for the stroke. This is a story that for Hartung begins long time before; in 1920 - this is the year in which Hartung dates his first abstract drawing - when he realized a series of xylographies where the theme of Dresda cathedral, in the contrasts of lights and shades, came true in conformity with stroke trend of vacuums of whites, opposed to fills, black splodges, and where faded completely away the legibility of the subject in favour of a contemporary spreading of rhythms and musicality. Later, in 1922, completely oblivious of similar experiences, he done a series of works on paper not figurative at all, where the aniline colours drew up iridescent, free from any subject and connection. Soon after he will realize works using both hands, where the importance of doing, of creating the work by the gesture, and its coincident independence from any referential way or from any oriented constructive intent, will be of fundamental importance for their final result, method that will be recovered and confirmed in his way of painting many years later. Probably, his stroke had roots much more in a distant past, perhaps they went back when he was six years old, when to face up with the storm fear, he started to draw, on school exercise-books, - the “Blitzbuchers”3 - the flashing of lightning with fast and zigzagging strokes, shore that “... nothing could happen to me if my stroke would have been as fast as the lightning…”.3 But the decisive shift will be when, in 1926, in opposition to the advices of the teachers of the Lipsia Academy of Art, who, realizing his not common attributes for not figurative expression, they used to spur on him to enrol to the Bauhaus, contrary to what a young student of art could, at that time, rationally do, who, by a natural talent, had already headed on the way of a free abstraction - when the abstraction seemed it couldn’t be nothing else than formalism, the only linguistic structure that till that moment could establish and justify it - Hartung unexpectedly renounces following it. On the contrary, he leaves Germany for Paris with “Purity, limpidity, beauty” 4 in his eyes, just discovered in Matisse, Braque, Picasso’s art, which he saw in a great international show in Dresda that year. In fact, the young Hans had just attended a Kandisky’s conference which didn’t enthralled him at all: the new rules of the geometrical abstractionism, the follower of concrete art dictates still permeated of symbolism, left him unimpressed; an art confined in squares, circles, ovals and rectangles didn’t attract him.

These were the emblematic premises on which by the drawing - by the works on paper - originates and generates all the pictorial work of Hartung; the constant meditative propensity to the free execution of numberless works on paper, from which take inspiration for the paintings, will be later, up until the sixties, the inalienable method of work of Hans Hartung. And it is really observing the great importance of this expressive form, in the system of his work, that Hartung, just in the early moments of his success, wanted to give, in accord with a way of is feeling the work of art, independently of the quality of the support, equal expressive valences and expositive dignity to his drawings, exhibiting them in several occasions in thematic shows, starting from a first one “Dessins 1921 - 1938” held in Paris at Craven’s Gallery in 1938, peaking with the show “Hans Hartung works on paper 1922 - 56” held at the Tate Gallery in London in 1996, real tribute to his great graphic activity.

Hartung action painter, in this way he has been classified - and he had, probably really even the merit, after having an interview 5, of the first mintage of the word action painting - but nevertheless he isn’t only that. When, in the years immediately after the world war II - close to the Shoah orror - the need of turning over a new leaf, and of breaking the continuity with art of the previous years, takes the new generation of abstract not geometrical artists to improve to a more free and immediate expression, able to better express the tensions and the existentialist thought, that moment will gain ground quite quickly, identified in the flairs called Action painting, Art Informel, Art Tachiste 6. Hartung, at least on the front of a novel stroke painting, was certainly the beginner of that moment - and in the preceding years of the war, in Paris, had been disregarded, almost considered “the black sheep” 7 of the abstraction for the innovative scratches technique, because he wasn’t formalist, and for the use of not traditional materials, at the same time he started to be understood and appreciated - therefore Hartung, in 1945 - practically an artist still unknown to the general public, will soon have international fame, 8 attending to the Venice Biennale in 1948, and winning the Venice Biennale award in 1960 - appreciated as the one who had been the real precursor. This produced an interpretation of a tachiste Hartung, which was preponderantly referred to the gestural and informel spontaneity which was usually found in his painting works: whereas at that time, his works weren’t created at all, without a meticulous order, of whom derivation there was methodically a drawing, which later would become carefully reproduced on canvas in every its tendency and casualness. 9

In Hartung’s painting, more then in any other artist, it is difficult to distinguish the graphic from the pictorial style, first of all for the very stroke feature, which characterizes all his work. As a matter of fact the use of the black ink drawing, with its essential peculiarities to find the energy to reproduce a new improvisation, this is the methodology which characterizes Hartung from other artists of the lyric abstractionism, such as G. Mathieu, F. Kline, P. Soulanges, who have produced, properly indeed, a gestural painting. Differently Hartung, used to obtain his painting works by his previous graphic works, with the evident intent of transposing the extraordinary immediacy and the sense of spontaneity and of improvisation; so many paintings on canvas which seem an unique sudden brush stroke, are rather an intense whole of many singular marks and scratches which are hoarded and masked, or other times, the pictorial medium has been thinned as to imitate the dispersion of watercolour or the fluidity of China ink. Hartung not only a craftsman of the gesture but instead, and more, a craftsman of the stroke and gesture. First beginner of a tachiste art, continuator and inventor of an expressionism which didn’t need no more any kind of image and any referential, not addressed to any kind of ideological suffering, subsequently craftsman of the lyrical abstraction, intent disclosing secret sinuous recesses of the soul and of the consciousness, which are inexpressible and unexplainable, which we can observe only by the experience of the active and gestural knowing of the work, he is realizer of stroke perceptive events, which appear to our consciences in all their reality whether they are psychical, phenomenal or numinous, anyway sound in their mistery.

In the superb works on paper - an homogeneous corpus of the 1955-58, of extraordinary quality such to be included in the category of masterpieces of historical order - exposed in this show at the Folini Arte Contemporanea in collaboration with the Fondation Hans Hartung et Ann - Eva Bergman in Antibes, is always very transparent the salient and operative connotation of Hartung. Where the lines, the strokes, as hoarding constitute a series of correlations which are consequent of a continuous process, by a constant judging and reacting of the mind and of the emotion, which in this way, develops a system of connections, dependences and correspondences, of powers, which giving itself in a joint whole, it is impossible to distinguish how much it is caused by instinctivity and how much by rationality. In their atmospheric profundity, in the strenuous probing of the gesture in its different mark determinations, they introduce and respond to intuitive knowing forms, a kind of organic knowledge, immediate assertion of the Being, of personality, which in the comprehension of the powers of nature and of the laws that govern its events, which surround it and pervade it, gains experience and benefits, giving them back, transformed by the perception and by the expression, in a whole, instant and sensational pictorial form. Each one of these works on paper, in this sense, is a renewed theory, an overcame supposition, an experimentation which shows always in a different and in itself a complete way, the unusual charm of its realizing, which is a verification of the possibility of raising itself out of reality, acting without dogmatic interpositions, in a way that space doesn’t subject us and time doesn’t obsess us; a story returned in a instant. All the infinite inflexions of the stroke in the expression of the gesture, meditation and will of the mind, are exactly understanding formed in the action; they refer to a tension to restore a balance between naturalness and culture, between time passing and what remains, connoting and distinguish them in the contrast between light and shadow, where the black brush strokes operate in the space rising dark, surfacing and enquiring as springing and transforming into the mind continuously; expressing, realizing argumentations franked by the aid of words, confiding that the mutable and always new relation between things, the world, an emotion, a mood, a concept - are the world itself, but that before becoming art, must pass through that hard and complex process of cultural transmutation, that only a very few are in a position to carry out, and that - beautiful event - makes them become, in their visual expression, knowledge, culture, poetry.

In the fifties, period in which these works on paper started to be created, culture and art in Occident have intensely looked at the Orient ones, most of all because of some of its philosophical valences, for its different way of conceiving the Being and its becoming, its aesthetical pantheism. “Every wisdom comes from Orient”, this moralized Costantin Brancusi in its Aphorisms; Ezra Pound used to insert Chinese ideograms in his Pisan Cantos, John Cage used to compose listening to the I Ching, Mark Tobey used to go through the Zen, Renè Daumal used to ascend the Hinduism. But Hans Hartung, kept master of the stroke, and, about the Oriental calligraphy, never went too far saying generic appreciations, rather making his art, and all the abstract one, clearly be traced in the respect and in the passion for individuality and for liberty, and the consequent expressive freedom, which is the fundamentals and the peculiarity of modern Occidental culture. 10

In front of the stunning pictorial works of the eighties, where the stroke quitting every aulic composition, passing the traditional tasks of pictorial means, places itself further, over the painting itself, and before any possible interpretation - which are underlined not indispensable and instead predetermined to the future – we realize we are living a shred of modernity, still not passed through by history; even if in the present, they already appear to us, as if they were without time and absolute. Immense works, where, in the evocative and trepidant chromatic space of the work, lashed jets of colour, in stains or drops, without any bond, with the utmost energy burst into traces, they rise, twirl, they suddenly change direction, they spread and disappear, with a great vitality and expressive autonomy: here is the emotional and lyrical sensibility, the extemporization and meditation of Hartung, become a perfect synthesis of an image which includes the most deepest apprehensions, the tensions to the highest aspirations as to the most simple human compulsions, and which, for their power, for the charm of their beauty, go over every distinction and every category, to ascend to values which do not deal anymore only with the human being and its reality, but that they place them in the sphere of ultimate and universal values.

Luino, june, 2006

  1. Interview by Tadao Tekemoto, 1969, in Dialogue in Art: Japan and West, quoted in “Hans Hartung works on paper 1922 – 56”, J. Mundy, Tate Gallery, London, 1996.
  2. Hans Hartung, Autoritratto: a narration received from Monique Levebvre, introduction by F. D’Amico, GAM, Turin, n. d. page 58.
  3. ibid., page 2.
  4. ibid.,
  5. ibid., page 152.
  6. Depositions of the relief of Hartung’s work in Piero Dorazio, Rigando dritto Scritti 1945-2004, by M. Mattioli, Silvia Editrice, Milan, 2005, 488 pages.
  7. op. cit., 111.
  8. For some precious references to the influence of Hartung’s work in relation to the abstract art story in Italy, also see, Nathalie Vernizzi, Razionalismo lirico, All’Insegna del pesce d’oro, Scheiwiller, Milan, 1994, pag. 290 and following.
  9. A. Herbin immediately appreciated Hartung’s method and he supported him continuing on the way he took, in Autoritratto.
  10. op. cit., page 180.