This artist hasn’t had a major retrospective in years, but had a career that spanned early 20th-century experiments in Symbolism, via Surrealism. He ended up, wheelchair-bound, firing acrylic paint through a spraygun in an insane burst of productivity, with 360 works in the final year of his life, 1989, alone.
Hartung found fame in the 50s and 60s, though, with his black-ink-on-paper works. These spikes and swoops found their way onto many book covers and student bedroom walls. Collected at MAM, they still have a big impact. He was friends with Soulages and Klein, and found his moment.
Hartung makes sense considered as a “gestural” artist: his improvisatory line is merely an expression of the artist’s subconscious impulses. The final works, blown up to a huge scale, and adorning the massive final gallery of the show, are absurd - semi-automating Hartung’s gesture through spraygun and a squadron of assistants.
But there’s something there in those smaller, spikier post-war works. Hartung had a privileged background and was in with the in crowd throughout his life, with a squadron of A-list artist friends. When fame came, he set up a spectacular “showroom” studio that featured in many a magazine spread, though the actual painting was done in a smaller room upstairs.
On the other hand, Hartung experienced great suffering, losing a leg in the war when fighting with the French Foreign Legion.
There seems to have been a slow fadeout in the reputation too, with no survey shows in Paris since the end of the 60s. Most of the works are in private collections, or lent from his foundation, rather than from other museums. And I couldn’t help but notice that the gallery was pretty thinly populated, especially compared with the knockout Bacon show across town at the Centre Pompidou.
Though maybe a revival is under way. On my return to London, I attended a show at a commercial gallery, Mazzoleni, that placed Hartung firmly in the Art Informel movement that took root in post-war Paris, where Hartung lived. Some of his India ink works are exhibited alongside gestural abstract paintings from Jean-Paul Riopelle, Serge Poliakoff and - a name new to me - Toshimitsu Imai. This Japanese artist in Paris produced striking, volcanic works with thick layers of shiny paint.
Hans Hartung: La fabrique du geste is at MAM (Paris). October 11 2019 - March 01 2020