T1937-33 is an abstract painting consisting of a dynamic and chaotic composition presented on a canvas that has been left uncovered in many areas, especially across the top, bottom and right sides. Black charcoal has been used to mark out a number of gestural lines running in different directions. These lines vary in both width and pressure of application and while some take a sinuous, meandering path, others are relatively straight. Charcoal has also been rubbed onto the canvas in places to create loose black patches, and several unbounded forms have been rendered using various colours of oil paint and pastel. These include a large, curved, bright whitish-green shape on the left of the work, an area of pale yellow near its centre, and long, sweeping bands of grey and brown towards the left and right sides respectively. The superimposition of different forms in this work evokes a sense of spatial recession, although this is countered by the visibility of the bare canvas and the starkly gestural nature of many of the artist’s strokes.
This painting was made by the German artist Hans Hartung in 1937, when he was living and working in Paris. Hartung had been producing abstract paintings since 1922 and this is one of a number of his paintings from the mid- to late 1930s in which the support remains clearly visible (see also T-1938-8 1938). Like many of Hartung’s works, this painting is titled using a numerical designation: the letter ‘T’ at the start of the title stands for the word ‘toile’ (French for ‘canvas’), and this is followed by the year of the painting’s execution, 1937, and the reference ‘33’, which is unique to this work.
The use of gestural marks was extremely common in Hartung’s work from the late 1920s onwards. Since the 1950s, his dynamic strokes and splatters have been compared frequently with techniques used by many European abstract painters who emerged around that time, including Michel Tapié, Georges Mathieu and Jean-Paul Riopelle, who are often labelled as ‘Tachiste’ artists and commonly created energetic works, with marks that appear to have been vigorously applied. However, as is demonstrated by this painting, Hartung’s gestural approach predated theirs by some decades. In 1949 the German art collector and filmmaker Ottomar Domnick argued that as well as being highly dynamic, Hartung’s lines also often add a ‘tactile element’ to his paintings because the varying pressure of his strokes is often visibly evident, drawing attention to the weight and physicality of his working process, an effect that can be seen in T1937-33 (Ottomar Domnick, ‘Expression and Creation’, in Hans Hartung, Stuttgart 1949, p.53).
As well as gestural marks, this painting also features a number of unbounded areas of paint, which resonate with the art historian Roger van Gindertael’s claim that Hartung tended not to ‘subordinate’ colour to shape, but instead to deploy it as an independent element in his compositions (van Gindertael 1961, p.69). As the art critic James Johnson Sweeney noted in 1949, the combination of expressive lines with ‘flat washed patches of color’ was very common throughout Hartung’s career (James Johnson Sweeney, ‘Preface’, in Hans Hartung 1949, p.3). This was especially true of his work during the mid-1930s, as can also be seen in works such as T1934.2 1934. This juxtaposition of dynamic lines with thin washes and loose strokes also seems to support art historian Donald Kuspit’s claim that Hartung’s works consistently ‘involve an attempt to integrate ... painterliness and vigorous linearity’ (Donald Kuspit, ‘Hans Hartung, Indomitable and Independent’, in Hartung, exhibition catalogue, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya 1998, p.169).
Sweeney also argued that the ‘patches of colour’ which frequently feature in Hartung’s works ‘float lightly, airily over the surface, suggesting different levels, but always recalling us to the basic flat unity of the picture’ (Sweeney 1949, p.3). This is arguably true of several forms in T1937-33, including its long brown and grey shapes. More generally, however, the statement resonates with this work’s ambiguous play between implications of spatial recession and an emphasis on the flat canvas support. Kuspit has argued that this is a common feature of Hartung’s practice from the 1920s onwards, claiming that since that period his works often evoked a sense of ‘infinity’ or ‘formlessness’, with shapes appearing to hover in an indeterminate space, while also calling attention to the planarity of the work’s surface (Kuspit 1998, pp.169–71).
Roger van Gindertael, Hans Hartung, New York 1961.
Umbro Apollonio, Hartung, Milan 1966, unpaginated, reproduced no.70.
Hans Hartung, exhibition catalogue, Birmingham Art Gallery, Birmingham 1968, p.25.