Karl Hartung – Figure and Form – Bronze Sculptures 1938-1965

(Text to Exhibition A84, from 28.3 until 26.7.2009)

Born in Hamburg in 1908, Karl Hartung died in Berlin in 1967 at much too early an age for a sculptor of such consequence.  Significantly, Karl Hartung's places of birth and death are also the two main geographical cornerstones of his career.  He studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg and then, from 1929 until 1932, spent periods of study in Paris, where his interest was focused on Rodin, Despiau, Bourdelle and, primarily, Maillol, and also in Italy, where he was fascinated by Etruscan sculpture above all else.

While still in Hamburg, in 1935, Karl Hartung created his first abstract sculpture. In 1936 he moved to Berlin of all places, the very stronghold of those political forces that could not have been more opposed to his art.  After doing his military service from 1939 until 1945, during which time, in Paris in 1943, he had the opportunity of meeting Brancusi, Arp and Laurens, whose works confirmed the way he himself had chosen to go, he then embarked upon what was once again a normal and untroubled life as an artist, beginning with his first exhibition at the Gerd Rosen Gallery in Berlin in 1946. An active member of the groups "Zone 5", "Neue Berliner Gruppe", "Zen 49" and the Deutscher KĂĽnstlerbund, Karl Hartung was a professor of sculpture at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin from 1951 onwards. Besides this professorship, Hartung’s career was highlighted by public commissions, retrospective exhibitions, such as the one at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover in 1953, and numerous awards and distinctions.

Hartung’s career as an artist hardly differs from that of his contemporaries, but with one exception: while the latter did not turn to abstract art until 1948, when abstraction became the "world language of art", Hartung was already working in the abstract in 1935, and not as one of the many German expatriates of his generation now living abroad, primarily in France or Italy, but as an artist still living and working in Germany, in Hamburg and Berlin, in a kind of "inner emigration". Notwithstanding his membership of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts from 1934 onwards and the unprecedented opportunities of being awarded sculpture commissions by the new powers-that-be, opportunities that were certainly grasped by his fellow artists in Berlin, Hartung remained very much in the background, hardly taking part in exhibitions and keeping his abstract sculptures a well-guarded secret. His wife Ilse Quast and he kept their heads above water with private commissions and the making of furniture.      

Following in the inspirational footsteps of the preceding generation of artists, such as Rudolf Belling and Otto Freundlich, Karl Hartung was the very first German abstract sculptor.  Nonetheless, it was precisely through his purely abstract language of form, a language completely free and detached from the object, that Hartung would again and again find his way back to the figurative, to the human figure in particular, and to the "vegetative" in general, this being the term he would use in his titles, and, by the same token, back to life and nature in every form.  It was not without good reason that Markus Krause gave his monograph and catalogue raisonnĂ© of 1998 the subtitle "Metamorphoses of Man and Nature" and that we, for our part, have given this present exhibition the title "Figure and Form", the one being inseparably bound up with the other in the oeuvre of Karl Hartung, an aspect that is neither contradictory nor a sign of insecurity or lack of consistency.  Nature and the human figure are permeated with pure form and, conversely, pure, abstract form is infiltrated with nature and the human figure.     

Catalogues raisonnĂ©s are mercilessly candid. Unlike those publications that mostly convey the harmony and consistency of an artist’s development, catalogues raisonnĂ©s also tell us about the sidetracks and dead ends of an oeuvre and about the hazards to which the oeuvre was exposed during the artist’s life.  The year of 1935 must have been a particularly critical one for Karl Hartung:  Up until Item No. 148 of the catalogue raisonnĂ© the symbiosis of rounded Maillolesque forms and the dignified pathos of Etruscan funerary terracotta had been developing in a direction that could easily have put Hartung among the candidates for the monumental sculptural projects commissioned by the new Nazi rĂ©gime in Berlin. But Karl Hartung resisted the temptation. Instead, and unlike many others, he decided in favour of artistic truth and integrity, accepting the likelihood of complete failure.  This turning point is clearly expressed in the illustrations on two opposite pages of the catalogue raisonnĂ©: on the left are depicted figures and heads – some of them life-size – in terracotta, cement or marble; on the right are abstract shapes of animals and heads. Midway between these two groups is the completely abstract, "perforated" form, the sum of the formal possibilities of Arp, Moore and even Gabo – or the painting of abstraction-crĂ©ation purely and simply turned into three-dimensional form.

Measuring forty-two centimetres in height, the sculptures shown here carrie within it all the essential features of the main oeuvre of Karl Hartung that was now to follow: the swelling human forms of his most revered Maillol breathe natural life into dead, abstract matter, paving the way for the perpetual ambivalence of life and matter in Hartung’s oeuvre. The titles are altogether in keeping with the themes: "Vegetative", "Organic", "Twin Forms", "Jointed Branches" etc.  Hartung’s forms force their way out from beneath an extremely taut, smooth surface like rapidly sprouting and spreading vegetation. Everything is organic, even pure, inorganic matter in its most abstract form.

What must be one of the most exciting experiences of an ardent lover of art is that moment when an artist’s oeuvre, hitherto thought to be fully known, suddenly opens up completely new worlds, whole groups of works never before seen, works that broaden the said oeuvre and our view of it in the most unexpected way. This is precisely what has happened in recent years following the rediscovery of Karl Hartung’s drawings, which were first shown on a relatively large scale and in exclusive presentations at the Kunsthalle in Erfurt in 2008 and at the Museum Moderne Kunst Wörlen in Passau. A detailed, large-format publication, with an introduction by Christa Lichtenstern, also deserves mention this context. These drawings were sculptor’s drawings par excellence, each line expanding into the third dimension, describing and circumscribing a volume. Nonetheless, these drawings are also drawings in their own right, not just preparatory drawings for sculptures, such drawings indeed being seldom found in Hartung’s oeuvre. They are as visually powerful as the sculptures themselves and, moreover, substantiate the "necessity of so-being" of Hartung’s sculptures. What perhaps seemed fortuitous in Hartung’s sculptural oeuvre now finds its aesthetic legitimization in the drawings.  A catalogue raisonnĂ© of Hartung’s drawings – it is hoped that such a catalogue will be published soon – would be extremely desirable for a complete understanding of Hartung’s oeuvre.

Following an impressive solo exhibition during Art Cologne in 1993 and various relatively small presentations at our gallery in Wichtrach, we are delighted at this present opportunity of showing a larger solo exhibition of 21 bronze sculptures and several drawings during Art Karlsruhe 2009 and throughout the summer of 2009 at our gallery in Wichtrach. Our grateful thanks for this opportunity go to Karl Hartung’s daughter and estate administrator, Hanne Hartung-Schneede.

Ingeborg Henze-Ketterer and Wolfgang Henze

Galerie Henze & Ketterer
Kirchstrasse 26, CH 3114 Wichtrach
Tel. +41 (0)31 781 06 01
modernart (at) henze-ketterer.com
Galerie Henze & Ketterer & Triebold
Wettsteinstrasse 4, CH 4125 Riehen
Tel. +41 (0)61 641 77 77
ghkt (at) artgalleries.ch