Perrotin and Fondation Hartung-Bergman present a solo exhibition featuring a selection of twenty paintings and works on paper by Hans Hartung. Following an exceptional retrospective in Paris in 2019, as well as recent solo shows in the United States, Europe and Asia, the art of Hartung, who died in 1989, is being given pride of place once again in Japan at a time when he seems more modern than ever.
In postwar Japan, Hans Hartung was acknowledged very early on as a pioneer of abstraction. In 1951, his painting T1948-16 caused a sensation at the Salon de Mai in Tokyo. This work then entered the collection of the Ōhara Museum of Art in Kurashiki, joining pieces by the greatest Western masters of modern art. In Japan as around the world, Hartung became a seminal figure and leading voice of informalism. In a 1953 interview with the magazine Mizue he declared that “while impressionism, fauvism and cubism are genres, abstraction is a liberation.” During this period, Hartung’s paintings were regularly featured in group exhibitions throughout the country. Colors, forms, fluidity, seriality—his style was unique, and his innovative practices inspired young Japanese painters while throwing down the gauntlet to art critics.
In the Empire of Signs
Hartung’s art also challenged the avant-garde calligraphers of the Bokujinkai group. In a study of his work, their leader Shiryū Morita associated the Franco-German painter with other artists apparently influenced by calligraphy, such as Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning. In Hartung’s case, however, there was no such influence. Later, he would downplay the issue: “It is a rather fortuitous connection between currents with different origins.” Yet this association of Hartung’s signs and forms with the vitality and plastic qualities of ideograms is nonetheless fruitful. The ink works on paper from 1955 to 1956 displayed at Galerie Perrotin reveal another dimension of Hartung’s art, its rapid execution: “You always have to do it very quickly, otherwise it becomes lifeless.” This swiftness in the execution of strokes recalls the frantic calligraphies of Yūichi Inoue or the slender flashes of Toko Shinoda, only changed into abstraction. Speed, but also sensuality. For Masataka Ogawa, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Toyama, Hartung’s style was feminine, comparable to the cursive script of Japanese ideograms. This coincidental similarity had already drawn attention from Kunsthalle Basel when the Swiss museum included Hartung’s works in the exhibition Japanische Kalligraphie und westliche Zeichen (Japanese Calligraphy and Western Signs) in 1956. Arnold Rüdlinger, the exhibition’s curator, described Hartung as a painter who had “updated Kandinsky’s attempt to appropriate signs as a subjective and momentary ‘graphological’ medium.”
Hartung Through a Japanese Lens
While the revival of the motif in contemporary art was being debated in the early 1960s, Hartung’s ink works on paper continued to intrigue the Japanese. The painter Ryūichi Suzuki was fascinated by Hartung’s increasingly thick black lines. The form of some of these works on paper reminded Tōru Haga, art critic and friend of Michel Tapié, of the nature- inspired elements of Japanese aesthetics: pine needles, sasa (bamboo) leaves, and algae. This interpretation would have surprised the artist, but it fueled the debate. Today, the intellectual and writer Tadao Takemoto, who interviewed Hartung in 1969, does not see “an influence of Japanese art, which would be banal, but a convergence, which is more powerful.” This is what Hartung himself suggested in 1966, when he was invited to an international symposium on the ties and mutual influences between Eastern and Western art organized by UNESCO in Tokyo. There he was reunited with Yoshinobu Masuda, former assistant curator of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where Hartung had received the Grand Prize for Painting in 1960.
Masuda was himself an artist and an influential figure in the art world. The two men became fast friends, and Hartung gave his host one of his paintings, a work similar to T1965-E48 featured in the exhibition.
This exchange of art produced one of the most moving photos of the painter, with Masuda capturing the elderly man on a walk through the grounds of a Zen temple in Kyoto.
A Constantly Renewed Modernity
In a career spanning seventy years, Hartung thrived on continual experimentation. The more he advanced in age, the more he revolutionized his art and renewed his practice. He developed an evolving arsenal of brushes which served the poetics of his hand. The rough brushes, the African broom, and the scraper shown in the Tokyo exhibition are a mere sampling of the hundreds of tools used by Hartung.
Created over three decades, the exhibited paintings show Hartung’s engagement with artisanal and industrial techniques. A wide-ranging prime mover, he gave his creativity a life of its own, forever pushing to new heights. The first period (1960–1970) was characterized by spray paintings and the practice of scraping, halos of vinyl paint and wide furrows of cold colors. From 1977 to 1986, Hartung explored new frontiers, creating his own personal land art. In his studio in Antibes, in symbiosis with nature, he transformed broom branches into brushes. Armed with these boughs, and infused with a renewed sense of dynamism, Hartung lashed the canvas, empowering black acrylic on azure backgrounds. T1980-E19 is emblematic of this new aesthetic, produced by gestures which, according to several witnesses, recalled the martial art of kendo. The sword turned branch opened a new way, the Way of the Plant Brush.
Hartung reached his artistic peak during the third and final period of his life, from 1986 to 1989. He started using immense canvases, applying the paint with a compressed air gun or a sulphate sprayer without touching the surface.
Hartung’s inventiveness near the end of his life was not unlike that of the Gutai group in its early days. Yet despite his trip to Japan in 1966, the artist was not familiar with the audacity of someone like Shōzō Shimamoto who shattered bottles of paint on his canvases. In Hartung’s final paintings, such as T1989-U11 from 1989, fullness follows emptiness, black swirls delineate space, while abstract landscapes of mountains and mists stir the viewer’s imagination. In his cloister-like studio, Hartung worked every night until his death, caught between the desire to capture the moment on canvas and the ecstatic mastery of his technique. It was perhaps Tadao Takemoto who best described the artist’s evolution by drawing “a parallel between abstraction and introspection, the practice of Zen where one looks within to look beyond.” This is supported by the view of Siegfried Wichmann, the art historian and Japan specialist, who claimed that “Hartung followed Sengai.” Sengai Gibon was the monk-painter behind the famous Zen drawing of the three pure signs: square, triangle and circle. Entitled The Universe, this drawing was created at the dawn of the century preceding Hartung’s body of work, which itself became the symbol of another universality—that of his art.
Matthieu Séguéla holds a doctorate in history from Sciences Po Paris and is an exhibition curator and art historian. His recent books include Clemenceau ou la tentation du Japon (CNRS Éditions, Prix Pavie 2014) and Soulages, d’une rive à l’autre, co-authored with Michaël de Saint Chéron (Actes Sud, 2019).
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)