THE MEMORY OF THE FUTURE – ON THE WORK OF SIMON HANTAI

Nearly five years after the artist’s death and 35 years after his last major exhibition, a retrospective of Hantai’s work opened on 21 May 2013, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The exhibition is by far the most complete showing ever of the works of one of the preeminent figures of 20th-century abstract art. Hungarian by birth, Hantai left behind an extraordinary oeuvre now on display in Paris in over 130 paintings.

BEGINNINGS

Hantai was born on 7 December 1922, in the village of Bia, Pest County, Hungary, the second child of Anna Wachter and Simon Handl. As a boy, Hantai was steeped in traditional rural life and bilingualism. The predominantly Catholic, ethnic Swabian enclave of Bia, nestled deep within the Hungarian community, had managed to hold on to its German language and culture, centuries after the arrival of settlers. “I do have a mother tongue. Then again, I don’t”, Hantai wrote to the French writer Hélène Cixous toward the end of his life. An excellent student, Hantai was sent by his father to the Ferenc Toldy Grammar School in Budapest in the hope that he would one day earn a living as an engineer. Hantai however took up special sculpture classes as early as the age of twelve, and on leaving school applied for admission to the Royal Hungarian Academy of the Arts.

Having gained admission as a major in frescoes in 1941, Hantai became a disciple of Vilmos Aba-Novák. When his mentor died soon after, the class was taken over by Béla Kontuly. Hantai had little money and had to pay for his tuition and upkeep himself but diligently progressed with his studies. In October 1942, he was granted a tuition fee waiver by the Academy. In 1943, he transferred into the painting class of István Szőnyi, which was attended by several of his friends and fellow artists, including Judit Reigl, Teréz “Tissa” Dávid, Ferenc Fiedler, Ádám Sjönholm, Antal Bíró, Lipót Böhm “Poldi”, Sándor Zugor and Pál Hargittai.

While little of Hantai’s early work survives, those that are known to us exhibit the powerful influence of two great forebears. One of them is the Spanish Renaissance master El Greco, whose expressive, elongated limbs and heads clearly inspired Hantai’s paintings, most of which at that time dealt with religious subjects (for example Kiss of Judas, 1946). Starting in 1945, Hantai, along with a number of Szőnyi’s students, attended art history and French classes taught by François Gachot, director of the French Institute in Budapest, who more than likely can be credited with immersing them in the modern art of France. As Reigl and Bíró did, Hantai also succumbed to colour schemes unambiguously harking back to the great Post-Impressionist, Pierre Bonnard (A Company of Friends, 1946). As a third source of inspiration, one could point to Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka. In conversations with the author, Judit Reigl recalls how several of their circle of students, including Hantai and herself, felt deep veneration for the great self- contained Hungarian master, who at that time was still relatively unrecognised.

In December, at the Christmas exhibition of the College Youth Circle, Hantai displayed seven works. The event was covered by the newsreel of the day. The surviving footage shows the 23-year-old artist in the company of his friends, Reigl, Böhm, Bíró and Fiedler. It was here that Hantai made the acquaintance of another fellow student, Zsuzsa Bíró. The meeting led to the blossoming of love and they married in January 1947. Over the years, Zsuzsa gave birth to five children and remained Hantai’s loyal companion to the end of his life. At around the same time, Hantai struck up what would become a lifelong friendship with the poet Ferenc Juhász, five years his junior, who hailed from the same village.

ITALY AND PARIS

In 1947, Hantai won the same fellowship to France that had been awarded to his friend Ferenc Fiedler the previous year. The increasingly oppressive political climate in Hungary drove the young married couple to make a swift decision. In March 1948, they set out for Italy without a valid visa and planned to wait there for their French visa to arrive. They left at the very last moment, on possibly the very last train out, before the Iron Curtain descended, shutting Hungary off from the West for decades to come.

Waiting for them in Rome were several ex-college friends on scholarships at the Hungarian Academy. The director Tibor Kardos, who happened to be organising an exhibition of their work, immediately invited Hantai to join in. The artist went on to show four canvases next to paintings by Reigl, Zugor, Bíró, Fiedler and Böhm, among others – all of them young and brave, and poor as church mice. Norman Mailer, who had just collected the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Naked and the Dead, obliged Hantai by purchasing some of his paintings, including Self-Portraitwith Red Star (1948). This provided the young couple with income to live on for a few months. The Hantais then took to the road to discover Italy, and visited Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, Giotto in Padua, and Massacio in Florence. Hantai was deeply impressed by the mosaic at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna and Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi. In August, they spent ten days in Venice in the company of old and new friends during the 24th Biennial, where they took the opportunity to immerse themselves in the best of contemporary European art. Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso opened up entirely new horizons for Hantai, who absorbed as much of the new influences as he could.

In September 1948 they eventually made it to Paris, only to discover that Hantai’s fellowship had been cancelled. Despite the setback, the couple decided to stay; indeed Hantai would never again return to his native land. Their first steps in Paris were guided by their friends Péter and Vera Székely. Hantai gained admission to the École du Louvre, and began to feverishly tour the exhibitions and museums. For all the help from his handful of Hungarian friends, the young newcomer found it difficult to emerge from obscurity. They made a very modest living by occasionally selling a few of their own textile designs here and there. François Gachot, expelled from Hungary by the new Communist government there, returned to Paris and helped Hantai secure a new grant, crucial in allowing him to finish his Baigneuses (“Bathers”, 1949), his first important large painting since his arrival in Paris.

UNDER THE SPELL OF SURREALISM

Hantai made himself a peculiar three-dimensional gift for his 30th birthday. On 7 December 1952, he affixed a 40×24 cm sheet of paper on cardboard, compressed the wax-painted surface, and applied a dried skeleton of a fish to it and then the skull of an amphibian. He then finished his piece by scraping the following inscription in the fresh oil paint at the bottom: Regarde dans mes yeux. Je te cherche. Ne me chasse pas. (“Look into my eyes. I will look for you. Do not chase me.”). He wrapped up the work, carried it over to 42 rue Fontaine, and left it there on the doorstep. This was the home of André Breton – the French writer and poet, known best as the founder of Surrealism – who had shortly before opened his gallery À l’Étoile Scellée, a surrealist sanctuary. A few days later Hantai went to see the exhibition and noticed his unwrapped object-painting being displayed alongside works by Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti. He introduced himself to Breton, who without hesitation said the artist should have his own individual exhibition. The first-ever Hantai exhibition opened on 23 January 1953, and featured several works that would reappear at the current Retrospective at the Pompidou, including La jeune mouche D. s’envole (“The young fly D. is flying away”, 1950), Elle seule doit y toucher (“She alone may touch it”, 1952), and Le Narcisse collectif (“Collective Narcissus”, 1952).

Hantai’s works from the 1950–1952 period are a clear departure from the period which ended in 1949 with Baigneuses. With L’Arbre des Lettrés (“Tree of Clerks”, 1950–51) Hantai – under the spell of new visual experiences, and particularly under the most emphatic influence of Max Ernst – unambiguously turns to new techniques. He trades his brush for a razor blade and other tools, applying the paint to the medium in several layers before scraping it back or wiping it away or, alternatively, pouring or splattering it on. He begins to work with collage, using pressed flowers, tree leaves, peacock and hummingbird feathers. Later on, he divides his paintings into cells and fills the resulting frames with quasi-organic fabrics and microscopic forms, achieving a veritable vortex of composition and colour. Thanks to his daring technique, the paint clings to the canvas in ethereally thin, membrane-like layers. The artist is carried away with the apparently infinite variations of materials and possibilities. His works from this period almost come across as experiments in alchemy, liberating a dynamic orgy of colours and forms hitherto unknown in Western Europe. Starting in1953, this unbridled sweep of colour is presented on large oil-on-canvas works such as Femelle-Miroir I–II (“Female Mirror I–II”, 1953), where the virtual space of the painting is dominated by hybrid creatures that radiate an intense sense of sexuality despite their being genderless. In the tangle of composition, Hantai hides strange tiny insects, unusual forms and odd little critters while never ceasing to experiment with new materials, incorporating bleached animal skulls (goats, birds, rodents), chicken legs and fish skeletons. In 1955, Hantai is visited by the noted Swedish poet and art critic Ingemar Gustafson, who records his impressions thusly: “… a lumber maze, a storehouse at the bottom of the sea, two Victorian apartments fully stripped, anything but a studio… butterflies, branches, skeletons of birds, flying in a dark wardrobe, shells, more shells, a gilded mirror with a seahorse on the glass, leaves, dolls, corals, crabs, skulls, shimmering white in the semi-darkness.”

By the end of 1952, Hantai had realised that he had found his own unique idiom and stood ready to share it with Breton, Paris, and indeed the world at large. The surrealists received him into the fold with open arms. In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, Breton lauded the artist with superlatives: “… it is Simon Hantai, followed in retinue by those fabulous beings given life by his breath, who move like no others, in these early days of 1953, in the light of the never seen. … Once again, as perhaps every ten years, a great DEPARTURE.”

James Johnson Sweeney, director of the Guggenheim in New York,came to Paris on a mission to make preparations for a collection of “Younger European Painters”. He paid a visit to Hantai, and on behalf of the museum bought the artist’s Oeil d’émeraude taillée (“Cut Emerald Eye”, 1950), which he proceeded to show in New York at an exhibition in December 1953.

GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

From 1954, Hantai’s relations with Breton and the surrealists began to deteriorate. In March 1955, he made what would be a final gesture by taking part in “Alice in Wonderland”, an exhibition sponsored by the Galerie Kléber. Just ten days after the opening he wrote a letter to Breton severing ties with him and his movement. In 1956, on a trip to Paris, the Swedish art critic Jan-Gunnar Sjölin provides the following account: “Some months later, in February 1956, I had the opportunity to see a couple of paintings by Hantaï in Colibri, the avant-garde gallery in Malmö at that time. The catalogue gives a short quotation from the introduction by André Breton to Hantaï’s first individual exhibition in Paris in the beginning of 1953. The few small paintings exhibited apparently belonged to Ingemar Gustafson. When I went to Paris in the summer of 1956, I was determined to find more works by Hantaï. I did not foresee how difficult it would be to locate the reclusive artist. It may be of some interest to know that I paid a visit to a gallery with the poetic name L’Étoile Scellée, “The Sealed Star”, where the first individual exhibition of Hantaï paintings was being shown, indeed it was the first individual exhibition there at all. What perplexed me, however, was that the people responsible for the gallery denied ever having heard of Hantaï.”

By then, Hantai had turned his back irreversibly on conventional painting. Intrigued by abstraction, he abandons the brush and the easel and begins to paint gigantic canvases spread out on the studio floor. Instead of sticking to the usual expensive tubed paint sourced from art supply shops, he, like Jackson Pollock and other American abstract expressionists, begins to use synthetic, liquid industrial paint. Indeed, Hantai had applied the paint drip technique since the early 1950s, in a similar fashion to Ferenc Fiedler, whose paintings from 1950–1951 drew inspiration from Pollock’s “drip period” from 1947 to 1950. Works by the masters of the New York School, including Pollock, were regularly on display in Paris and elsewhere in Western Europe from the first half of the 1950s.

In 1955, Ellsworth Kelly returned to the United States, bequeathing his studio to Hantai. It was in this generous space that the artist created a new large canvas, Sexe-Prime (1955). The work was conceived in the spirit of Pollockian action painting as part of a series marked by the abandonment of the surrealist arsenal and a fresh preference for gestural-abstractionist techniques familiar from the work of Judit Reigl, who had for some time embraced total physical and psychological automatism, tossing aside all preconceived forms and preconceptions in general. Hantai was now developing his technique of applying multiple layers and patches of paint in abrupt, spontaneously broad movements, often “writing” the work in gestures of his entire body in a trance-like state. He followed up by using a variety of objects, even including the metal casework of an alarm clock, to strip away some of the paint thus applied, digging down, as it were, into the work to reveal ever deeper layers of paint. This is a major turning point, for it represents a rewriting of art history by shifting the emphasis to the removal of paint from its sheer application.

In the same year, Hantai met Jean Fournier, who, in the wake of the “Alice in Wonderland” exhibition, promised he could put on a one-man-show. The show, Hantai’s second individual exhibition, was called “Sexe-Prime. Hommage à Jean- Pierre Brisset”, and was opened by Fournier in May 1956 at the Galerie Kléber. Fournier from then on was Hantai’s deeply committed gallerist to the end of his life. The invitation to the exhibition, comprising some twenty canvases, featured the  following  introduction written  by  Hantai  himself:  “Sexe-Prime.Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset. Painting executed in an afternoon of erotic fascination (the act of love becoming one with the act of painting) through arbitrary orgiastic acts in a magic-erotic climate”.

Hantai then introduced his friend Judit Reigl to Fournier, who honoured the acquaintance by dedicating a personal exhibition to her at the Galerie Kléber. The catalogue was printed with introductions by Hantai and Mathieu with the respective titles: “For the splendid confusion of ecstasy”; and “For the delirious excess that provokes crusades”. Held soon after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the exhibition featured Reigl’s intensely wrought series titled Éclatement (“Outburst”). Both artists were deeply affected by the tragedy unfolding in their homeland, which drove Hantai’s sister – among thousands of Hungarians – to emigrate to Paris.

The extreme intensity that had characterised Hantai’s “sex-prime” series gradually abated, and the artist’s next individual exhibition in 1957, again shown at the Galerie Kléber, titled Recent Paintings, Memory of the Future, consisted of iconic gestural paintings making use of stripped-down minimalist devices. The 19 paintings, dedicated to various saints, theologians and poets, were all created within the span of a single year. Perhaps best exemplified by Souvenir de l’avenir (“Memory of the Future”, 1957), each employs just a few colours and a handful of symbols against a dark, typically black, background. After this relatively brief period, which lasted until the end of the 1950s, Hantai then produced a remarkably distinctive series entitled Little Strokes, which curiously alternated between quasi-monochromatism and bursts of colour. The vehement, unbridled gesture-paintings were now replaced by a strictly controlled order of tiny forms. Although some of the works carry on with the technique of gestural paint dripping, the emphasis has shifted unto small, repetitive forms that seem to emerge to form a pattern encompassing the whole canvas. Faintly visible underneath the paint, these hand-written “texts” anticipate the two major works with which Hantai completes this period of his oeuvre.

ÉCRITURE ROSE AND À GALLA PLACIDIA

During his ten years residence in Paris, Hantai was attacked on several fronts, both by the surrealist camp and for his Les Cérémonies commémoratives de la deuxième condamnation de Siger de Brabant, a 1957 performance co-authored with Georges Mathieu. By the end of the decade however, Hantai had broken off ties with Georges Mathieu and several other acquaintances. Having felt a need to settle accounts with the decade behind him, subject his art to thoughtful revision, find spiritual peace, and project his thoughts in paint, he took to writing and meditation every day for the following year in an effort to find the next step forward. Then, on 30 November 1958, on the first Sunday of Advent, he embarked again on new work. He described the process in the following words: “Having prepared the canvas with two layers of industrial paint and, after letting it dry, having slowly scraped the surface with razor blades to make it smooth and the little absorbent for the inks, I became frightened as I faced this white surface with no help or reference point. Weeks and weeks of hesitant scratching left it totally empty.” (Letter to Dominique Fourcade, 2005.)

He proceeded to record upon the blank canvas the important dates of his life, various religious symbols, and the prayers assigned by liturgy to each day he spent on the work, along with confessions and quotes from the Bible. These were followed by fragments from treatises in philosophy and theology, almost daily for an entire year. Using black, red, green and purple – all colours of the liturgy – the barely legible tangle of lines and letters of text produced an astonishing colour outcome: while the huge canvas contains not a single stroke in pink, the total effect of the finished work a year later comes off as definitely pink in hue. A mystic rose with a cross and other symbols. Worked on with the humility of a codex copyist, Écriture rose asks a spiritual question and contemplates both personal history and life in general. It undoubtedly stands as one of the most significant junctures in Hantai’s life and work.

Concurrently with this great painting, Hantai spent his afternoons bringing the same concentrated dedication to an equally large-scale work reminiscent of his Little Strokes in its technique. Entitled À Galla Placidia in recollection of theartist’s visit to Ravenna in 1948, the painting is dominated by an enormous cross, looming forth from the dark background. The pinkish glow of Écriture rose and the obscure light of À Galla Placidia both epitomise “a new kind of modernist picture” which, “like the Byzantine gold and glass mosaic, comes forward to fill the space between itself and the spectator with its radiance”.These two canvases can now be seen side by side – the first time ever since they left the doors of Hantai’s studio – at the Pompidou retrospective.

THE FIRST PLIAGES (FOLDINGS): MARIALES OR THE CLOAKS OF THE VIRGIN

Already in the early 1950s, Hantai had begun experimenting with the “folding method”, his technique of crumpling and folding the canvas before dousing it in paint. As soon as the paint dried on the surface, he would unfold and smooth the canvas, then marvel at the forms that yielded a random composition. Around 1960, he felt ready to abandon gestural abstraction, and reached back to the fountainhead of his own efforts ten years before. In 1962, when he resurfaced with an individual exhibition at the Galerie Kléber titled “Simon Hantaï Peintures mariales”, he decided to show works from the preceding two years that employed the above-mentioned process, but the exhibition failed to garner much reaction. Hantai divided these works, created by unfolding the painted crumpled canvas, into four groups (“a”, “b”, “c”, “d”), then assigned serial numbers to them based on the chronology of their creation.

The canvases of the Mariales “a”, or the MA series, of 1960 were, for the most part, completely covered in colour – red, blue, green, or yellow. These paintings are characterised by an even crinkle pattern and intense colour. The works of the MB series, from 1960 and 1961, tend to be monochromatic with a wonderful surface texture almost reminiscent of a relief map. Hantai pressed together the canvases of the 1962 MC cycle before folding them up, usually twice, and painting the resulting surface. The instalments of the MD series were first splattered with black paint before being folded and painted. Side by side with these large canvases, Hantai also worked on smaller paintings to which he often applied paint with a conventional brush after folding them. This process gave him a thicker surface that helped to create magnificent densely-textured compositions.

By folding or knotting the canvas, at first accidentally, then with increasingly focused purpose, Hantai essentially created the first evolution of his pliage (“folding method”) series. This technique, invented by Hantai, or rather transposed into the world of art history by him, went down in the annals of modern art history inseparably intertwined with his name. Until his retreat from the public eye in 1982, Hantai’s oeuvre can be divided into at least eight distinct pliage periods. The Mariales of 1960–1962 or, as he would rename the series around 1967, The Cloaks of the Virgin, represent the first series of these pliages.

THE PLIAGES

In 1963, Hantai received a fresh injection of inspiration. For the preceding ten years, he had spent his summer vacations with his family in the same small seaside village, Varengeville, where they rented a house named Catamurons. The source of inspiration turned out to be a blue towel hung on a door hook and surrounded by whitewashed walls. After Hantai first set eyes on this image, he began to frame the textured surface of his Mariales in white, blank canvases. Initially large, these works were gradually reduced in size by 1964 and were given a different series title: Panses (“Paunches”). In 1965, Hantai bought a house in Meun on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau. In 1966, he and his wife were granted French citizenship, and he had his first work admitted to the French public collection in the same year. Hantai then spent a year renovating the newly acquired home. When he returned to his work with redoubled intent, the years 1967 and 1968 saw him produce a magnificent new series, with each piece named after Meun. In addition to the colours, this series relies heavily on a white background for effect, signalling the influence of the late Henri Matisse who, having recovered from a bout of cancer diagnosed in 1941, had found new fountains of energy and reconceptualised his work. Matisse traded his brush for scissors, and would place colourful cut-outs on a white background, a process which proved to be seminal for Hantai at the time.

With the so-called Études cycle of 1968–1969, Hantai returned to the technique of folding that had marked his Mariales, with the difference that he now switched to acrylic paint for a much more ethereal effect. In 1968, the Fondation Maeght paid homage to the artist by hosting a 35-painting exhibition, and the Galerie Fournier showed canvases of the Études cycle, dedicated to Pierre Reverdy.

In 1970–1973, Hantai resorted to a smaller-scale format using mostly circular canvases to produce the Aquarelles, which hark back to the rose windows of churches.

The Blancs, painted in 1973 to 1974, marked a departure from the Études by replacing the monochrome of that earlier series by a multitude of colours.

Between 1973 and 1982, Hantai worked on his enormous Tabula paintings, achieving an almost geometric composition by systematically knotting the canvas in strategically chosen spots. Created in 1982, the Tabulas lilas, his last series of paintings, employed white paint over white canvas. In the words of Ágnes Berecz, “Tabulas lilas resumed andconcludedHantaï’sdecade-longinvestigationsintothecolourofpainting.Thetwo whites – warm and yellowish, cool and bluish – heightened each other and produced an impression ‘lilac’”. A testimony to Hantai’s fascination with surfaces left unpainted, the Tabulas lilas series turned the order of painting and colour upside down, making a fundamental contribution to the reconceptualisation of modern painting.

In 1976, the Musée National d’Art Moderne held a retrospective of Hantai’s oeuvre. After moving back to Paris in 1979, the artist once again became a focus of attention. In 1982, Hantai and the sculptor Toni Grand were given the honour of representing France at the 40th Biennial of Venice.

EXODUS

Hantai eyed the commercialisation of art with deep suspicion from the outset. Júlia Vajda provides the following account of her impressions upon visiting the artist in 1961: “He seems to be a fascinating man and I almost believe him, but his problems are rather peculiar… He is equally depressed by indifference and vacuum (in fact all the more so for making a living by painting these very subjects).

It pains and shames him awfully to earn not a little money by believing in nothing, and he envies those who died in poverty and obscurity and only achieved fame posthumously. He loathes the thought of any painting of his ending up in the house (or the storage) of a millionaire, and this loathing is much more profound than I can explain in words.”

Hantai considered the art business to be the greatest danger for modern art. In the early 20th century, modern art and modern artists inhabited the periphery, without really being able to rely on a medium ready to receive the spirit of innovation. Ever since art entered the radar screen of society’s interest however, and its worth came to be quantifiable, there has been nothing to prevent a work of art from being thought of as an investment. The value of an artist and his or her work was now judged upon by gallery directors and museum curators. It was in order to distance himself from these developments that Hantai left Paris and retreated into his own creative solitude. He was only able to fight the system by the very intentional act of escaping from it – by simply refusing to be co-opted by a dubious new order. Following the Biennial of Venice, Hantai turned his back on the art scene altogether and managed to achieve an inner “emigration” while still in Paris, resisting all exhibition offers until 1997. Although he abandoned painting for good in 1982, he continued to work in his own way, rethinking and reinterpreting his own oeuvre by slicing up some of his works. The resulting fragments he deemed worthy to survive came to form his last cycle, which he fittingly named Laissées (“Leftovers”).

Simon Hantai died in his afternoon slumber on 12 September 2008. It is only recently that the world has begun to recognise the invaluable contribution of his work and the formative role he played in the evolution of modern art. The current retrospective at the Pompidou must be seen as one of the first important steps toward that recognition.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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