1922 Bia, Hungary -
2008 Paris, France
b. 1922, Bia, Hungary; d. 2008, Paris
Simon Hantaï was born on December 7, 1922, in Bia (now Biatorbágy), Hungary. From 1941 to 1946, he studied in the mural division of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest. In March 1948 Hantaï obtained a government grant to pursue his studies in Paris where he arrived in September 1948, following a summer of traveling in Italy. After learning that his grant was revoked due to the escalating Sovietization of Hungary, he chose to stay as an immigrant. His early 1950s paintings feature figures in landscape, biomorphic and geometric forms, and imaginary creatures as well as a series of collages and cutouts. Using procedures such as scraping, rubbing, overpainting, and drips, he merged the iconography and the automatic techniques of Surrealism with the material and the gestural approaches of Art Brut, Art Informel, and Lyrical Abstraction (Abstraction lyrique).
After meeting André Breton in December 1952, Hantaï became associated with the Parisian Surrealists and had his first solo exhibition in January 1953 at the L’Étoile scellée, the group’s recently inaugurated gallery. The Surrealist works expand on his biomorphic imagery; they also incorporate found objects and present monstrous and often erotic half-human, half-animal beings. In March 1955, Hantaï broke with Breton’s group and abandoned figurative painting. His large-scale gestural abstractions informed by the work of Georges Mathieu and the Abstract Expressionists were first shown in May 1956 at the Galerie Kléber, Paris, under the title Sexe-Prime: Homage to Jean-Pierre Brisset (Sexe-Prime: Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset). Following the exhibition and event series, Commemorative Ceremonies of the Second Condemnation of Siger de Brabant (Cérémonies commémoratives de la deuxième condamnation de Siger de Brabant), which Hantaï had organized with Mathieu in March 1957 to celebrate the condemnation of the 13th-century heretic philosopher Siger de Brabant by the Church, he continued his calligraphic works (Memory of the Future [Souvenir de l’avenir], 1958) and developed an interest in the history of Christian theology and mysticism. From 1958 to 1989, he produced Écriture rose (Pink writing), a monumental canvas consisting of hand-copied, multicolored texts as well as canvases formed by painting, grattage (scraping), and handwriting.
In 1960 Hantaï launched the first series of folded and knotted paintings titled Cloaks of the Virgin (Manteaux de la vierge, 1960–62) and using his emblematic method of pliage (folding), a procedure reminiscent of tie-dye. Between 1960 and 1982, he created eight series of paintings by varying the handling and the dimensions of the support as well as the colors and their application. In 1965, he left Paris and moved to Meun, France, a village in the Fontainebleau forest where he produced the Meuns series (1966–68), which employs only a single color in addition to white. Subsequent series made by folding-as-method—the artist’s phrase to describe his process—include spherically shaped watercolors (1971–72) and two sequences of Tabulas (1972–74, 1980–82), which feature small rectangular shapes arranged in a grid-like pattern. In 1982, after representing France at the Venice Biennale and showing the white on white paintings Lilac Tabulas (Tabulas lilas, 1982) at Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, Hantaï ceased exhibiting his work. In 1998 he returned with Laissées, a series cut from his 1981 paintings, on view at the gallery Renn Espace, Paris, which was followed by exhibitions worldwide, including those at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris (1998); Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster, Germany (1999); and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York (2010). Hantaï died on September 11, 2008, in Paris.