Hans Hofmann, A Life Consecrated to Art

Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann was a German painter and professor. In his work, the influences of Fauvism, Cubism, and German Expressionism can be seen. He influenced Abstract Expressionism and was a painter and theoretician of special attraction to other artists such as the American painter Walter Darby Bannard and British artist John Hoyland.

He was born in Weienburg, Bavaria, on March 21, 1880—the son of Theodor and Franziska Hofmann—became an American citizen in 1941. When he was six years old he moved with his family to Munich where his life gravitated for a few years around science and mathematics.

At the age of sixteen, he followed his father into public service, working for the Bavarian government as assistant to the director of public works. There he increased his knowledge of mathematics, and over time developed and patented devices such as an electromagnetic comptometer, a radar device for ships at sea, a sensitized light bulb and a portable freezing unit for military use.

Miz Hofmann, Portrait [1901] Oil on board 27 1/2 x 19 5/8 in. (69.9 x 49.8 cm). Photo: Courtesy of Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Munich

A trip from science to art

Even with these great abilities in science and mathematics, Hofmann became interested in creative studies, beginning technical education after his father’s death. In 1898, Hofmann studied at Moritz Heymann’s art school in Munich where he was introduced to Impressionism and Pointillism, the flourishing new artistic movements of the time. Among his first works is the 1902 portrait of Hofmann’s future wife, Maria Wolfegg. This portrait shows the influence that the popular techniques of that time had on the young artist.

In 1904 Hofmann moved to Paris, the center at that time of all new developments in art, with the financial support of Berlin’s patron Phillip Freudenberg. He was later joined by Miz, and the two lived in Paris for ten years during one of the most revolutionary periods in the history of Western art. Frequenting the Café du Dome he met pioneers such as Matisse, Picasso, and Braque.

In 1933, Hofmann opened the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Manhattan. He achieved a certain reputation and popularity and was known by art students as the only European professor who taught American students what he had learned from Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Delaunay. He was an art teacher who allowed his students to explore and experiment with different types of techniques and encouraged them to seek inspiration from the natural world around them.

Still Life-Yellow Table on Green, 1936 Oil on panel 60 x 47 1/2 in. (152.4 x 120.7 cm). Photo: Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.

The artist and the teacher

Hofmann’s dual role as teacher and artist from 1932 to 1958 proved to be a challenge for him. He said, “Being an artist and being a teacher are two things that contradict each other. When I paint, I improvise… I deny theory and method and rely only on empathy and feeling… In teaching, it’s just the opposite, I have to account for every line, shape, and color. One is forced to explain the unexplainable.”

Despite his growing recognition as a painter, it wasn’t until 1958, at the age of 78, that Hofmann was finally able to resign as a teacher and devote himself fully to his art. His impact as a teacher was of great intensity then and is still palpable today, as his theories of “pushing and pulling” color and of breaking the image plane are still being spread by art teachers around the world.

It wasn’t until the end of Hofmann’s career that his reputation as an artist finally began to rise as a teacher. Hofmann’s first exhibition in New York was organized at the Art of This Century Gallery when he was 64. Although a generation older than Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorki, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning, Hofmann took his place as an important and influential member of this all-American art movement.

Untitled, July 20, 1942 Crayon and ink on paper 14 x 17 in. (35.6 x 43.2 cm). Photo: Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

The late recognition

In 1960, Hofmann was one of four artists to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and three years later a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art traveled throughout the United States and internationally to South America and Europe.

The curator of the 1999 Hofmann retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, Lowery Sims, says of the artist’s late bloom, “Hans Hofmann became famous in the 1950s and 1960s when he was in his seventies and eighties. In a way, he challenges the notion that creativity is only a matter for young people. It’s a great example for people to understand that creativity is a lifelong promise.”

Hofmann died on February 17, 1966, at the age of 86. Retrospectives and exhibitions continue to this day, and his work is in permanent collections in galleries and museums all over the world. He brought a deep understanding of Symbolism, Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism and was active in the European avant-garde of the early 20th century. The art school that he established in Munich in 1915, based on the ideas and work of Cézanne, Kandinsky, and the Cubists, was the first-ever school of modern art.

Laburnum, 1954, Oil on linen, 40 x 50 inches (101.6 x 127 cm) Private collection. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Powel Imaging.

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