Hans Hartung - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Introduction


    Named alongside Pierre Soulages as one of Picasso’s most admired abstract painters, Hans Hartung’s life and oeuvre were equally remarkable, with the former constantly informing the latter in tonal and gestural forms. Hartung’s works possess a unique visual lexicon and firmly establish the artist as a pioneer in the fields of 20th Century Abstraction, profoundly influencing generations of artistic movements including Art Informel, Tachisme, and American lyrical abstraction. His works can be considered within a much wider legacy of abstraction, permeating the lineage that runs between Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter, to more contemporary artists such as Katharina Grosse and Christopher Wool. The present work T1989-U40  is amongst the tallest of Hartung's works to come to auction, and was painted in the final year of the artist's life, the same year he was promoted to Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour. It writhes with energy, its colours are electrifying, and the multilayered impasto dances in an invisible choreography, as various coils all pulsate with energy, leaping and bounding off the canvas.


    With a major retrospective in 2019-2020 having inaugurated Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne’s reopening, Hartung’s crucial role in the art historical canon is indisputable. 

      “I sensed a bewitching terror in thunderstorms, I vibrated under their force, their power.” 
    — Hans Hartung 

    Hartung was born in 1904 in Leipzig, Germany, into an artistic family who encouraged the young boy’s artistic inclinations. His earliest artistic stimuli were variegated, having developed an early appreciation for Dutch realism in his reproductions of Rembrandt, and equally, a great partiality for Expressionists Oskar Kokoschka and Emil Nolde, filling notebook upon notebook with organic forms: flashes of lightning and brewing thunderstorms, fascinated such as he was by astronomy, the cosmos, and the skies.


    At just 18, Hartung already showed incredible artistic promise, and painted a series of 33 watercolours that were already abstract in execution. He remarked ‘…I liked the ones that were enough to create a face, a body, a landscape’i, and championed their complete 'autonomy and their freedom’ ii. In his evocation of surrounding sceneries but simultaneous eschewal of form, the young Hartung had developed a lasting and unique sensitivity to nature, colour, and the ability to distill landscape into abstraction. 

  • Rebellion, Revelation, Renewal

    Having initially enrolled at Leipzig University to study philosophy and art history, then subsequently attending the Fine Arts academy of Dresden to study the paintings of grand masters, the young Hartung was voracious in his academic and artistic intake, but also critically aware in spite of his age. Armed with a new sense of self-purpose, the fledgling artist sought to define himself and his own version of an ‘eternity’ of painting. Critical of other established artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (whose lecture he attended while still in Germany)—‘His discourse about the use and symbolism of the circle, the oval, the square and the rectangle neither seduced nor convinced me. I really don’t want at all to paint serpentine lines representing eternity’iii, —but charmed by the modern French and Spanish works he saw at the Internationale Kunstausstellung in Dresden’s International Exhibition—‘This search for plasticity, order, rigour, this simplication of colours gave me the impression of an unheard-of desire to create for eternity’iv —Hartung left his native country in search of new artistic directions and moved to France, finally settling in Paris in 1926. During the late twenties, the artist would delve into theories of aesthetics, mathematics, and the Golden Ratio, having studied at length the works of the Old Masters found in the Louvre. 


    Hans Hartung’s works exhibited during the Venice Biennale, 1960



    Escaping the ‘Black Years’: Pre & Post War

    Following the death of his father in the early 1930s and haunted by the rise of extremist national-socialism in Germany, it became apparent that Hartung would not be returning to his home country: indeed, after the war the artist becomes a French citizen. The War Years were a time filled with hardship and destruction: for artists residing in Paris, materials were scarce, and many of the artists who remained enlisted to fight. Hartung himself was injured in combat in 1944, and his right leg was amputated—an injury that would have repercussions in his methods of creations for years to come.

    Returning to Paris in 1945, Hartung’s post-war pieces were reflections of his anguish: ‘My drawings were traversed by strange, kinked strokes that were bogged down, desperate scratches. This was vehement, rebellious painting. Like myself.v’  Between the 1940s and 1960s, the artist produced a flurry of works, perhaps motivated by and compensating for the inactivity of the War Years. 1947 would prove to be a true turning point in the artist’s career: thanks to a solo exhibition at the Galerie Lydia Conti, the artist was finally truly revealed to the public, and during this time Hartung became acquainted with the likes of Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu and Mark Rothko—unbeknownst to him, these figures would become leading abstract artists alongside whom he would be situated in artistic discourse.


    In the decades that followed, Hartung went on to exhibit extensively: a retrospective at the Basel Kunsthalle (1952), the Venice Biennale (1954), and Documenta II (1959). In 1960, the artist was unanimously awarded the Venice Biennale’s Grand Prize in the paintings category, with one of the rooms in the French pavilion exclusively devoted to his pieces: ‘In 1960, a distinction pleased me even more than all the military honours…I had finally come out of the darkness of the black years.vi


    “As for me, I want to remain free. Of spirit, of thought, of action.” 
    — Hans Hartung  


    The Freed Brush


    From the crowning achievement in 1960 onwards, Hartung would enter the most mature portion of his artistic career until the end of his life, during which a shift in his use of colour can be seen. Since his earliest forays into painting, the artist showed incredible sensibility to pigmentation, however it is in these later stages that he would commit to a true creation of atmosphere and depth. 

    It has been noted that having suffered the loss of his leg in combat, Hartung was to become a master at creating extensions for his lost limb and subsequent limited mobility through the reinvention of multiple tools. Thus this mature post-1960s period was also when the artist would develop many of his most important techniques. Hartung experimented with scratching paint while it was still fresh on the canvas, inspired by engraving practices where he scratched metal plaques. This method was perhaps not unlike Max Ernst’s—whose works exhibited similar characteristics four decades prior—but Hartung redefined it with a distinct twist to capture gestural forms, rather than being a mere mode to build texture. Using pointed tools and lithography rollers, this ‘Grattage’ (literally ‘scratching’) technique would form the basis of his later works. Further, in 1966, the artist created his first (predominantly large) works with ‘pulverisateurs’ (spray guns), tools which would become permanent fixtures in his oeuvre from this point on. Between the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Hartung would add to his repertoire such diverse tools as brooms and branches steeped in paint, combs, ziplines, all used concurrently to capture his pictorial gestures. 




    Detail of the present work 


    ‘This pleasure of painting: it is the pleasure of living. 
    We cannot stop.’
    — Hans Hartung 


    The Later Years: Bottling the Cosmos 

    In 1986 Hartung suffered a debilitating stroke, causing him to be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life until 1989. Despite this, the artist refused to halt his artistic creations, and following his recovery from the stroke in March of the following year, he completed 85 canvases in 1987, 202 in 1988, and 360 canvases in 1989. To say that he was tenacious in his commitment to his art is an understatement, and even with restricted mobility, Hartung would produce some of the most captivating works of his oeuvre in these last three years, with intermittent aid provided by a small group of devoted studio assistants. Unperturbed by failing health, he never once shied away from experimentation, producing incredibly large canvases measuring up to 3 x 5 metres in these later years, and incorporating new tools such as the ‘sulfateuse’, a metal canister with an adjustable hose to allow the artist to control the flow of pigment.  

    As when he was a boy, Hartung looked to the skies and nature around him until his last breath—speaking in 1988, the artist notes his affinity for ‘atmospheric and cosmic tensions, energies and radiations that govern the universe. These are vital, natural, physical forces that I have always expressed through gesture.’vii  When we stand in front of the towering T1989-U40, a cerulean sky explodes with a constellation of stars; a cascading waterfall effervesces with moonlit foam; a lightning rips through the tapestry of the heavens in a vertical vortex of force and energy. The work literally shimmers with a quiet brilliance and silent melody—a testament perhaps to the conditions in which it was painted: likely at night and the artist surrounded by pounding Baroque music, his preferred mode of painting. As captured in this painting, this final period of his life was one that was euphoric and filled with vitality. Looking back on his life, the octogenarian had remarked, ‘[my] age, the vision of the world, whether aggressive or gentle, positive or negative depending on the moment, and this desire to live and to participate in life are the things I try to express in my pieces.’viii 


    “[Hartung] pretends to be a painter who doesn’t paint but instead invents painting. He reinvents himself by declaring painting to be an act of sweeping the picture clean. The broom belongs to his body.”
    — Katharina Grosse

    Collector’s Digest

    Hans Hartung was the subject of a major retrospective in 2019-2020 mounted by the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, as well as a major show presented at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2018, which focused exclusively on the artist’s works from 1962-1989. His works are part of the collections of Paris’ Centre Pompidou and Musée d’Art Moderne, London’s Tate Modern, and New York’s MoMA, Guggenheim Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.  



    Hans Hartung producing his art works during the late 1980s



    i Translated from Hans Hartung quoted in B. Grasset, Hans Hartung: Autoportrait (Hans Hartung: Self Portrait), France, 1976 
    ii - vi  Ibid.
    vii Translated from ‘L’art selon Hartung’ (‘Art According to Hartung’), Libération, 18 August 1988
    viii Ibid.

    • Provenance

      Timothy Taylor Gallery, London (acquired directly from the Estate of the Artist)
      Private Collection, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner



signed and titled 'H. HARTUNG T1989-U40' on the overlap
acrylic on canvas
195 x 130.5 cm. (76 3/4 x 51 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1989, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Hartung Bergman. This work is registered in the archives of the Fondation Hartung Bergman under archive number CT 572-0, and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by the Fondation Hartung Bergman.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for HK$4,284,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021