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Indepth Arts News:

"Hans Josephsohn: Sculptures"
2002-06-01 until 2002-08-11
Stedelijk Museum
Amsterdam, , NL

Josephsohn’s Zurich atelier is unexpectedly hidden between two new blocks of flats, surrounded by a high wall. He still works here every day. An element of aloofness has always marked the way Josephsohn shows his sculpture. Hence, the significance of his work has only started to spread into a wider circle in the past several years. Even so, aloofness is not the only reason for relative obscurity; indeed, the stubborn, unfashionable nature of his work also plays a role.

Hans Josephsohn was born in Königsberg (1920), in East Prussia, as it was then. At 18 he left to study sculpture in Florence. Later that year, warned by friends, he moved to Switzerland - ahead of the advancing tide of anti-semitism. After roving around he arrived in Zurich where he settled for life. A displaced person like one of so many thrown up at the time, at a crucial age, cut off from his family and the familiar surroundings where he grew up - not that they left such happy memories thanks to the upmarch of national-socialism. Josephsohn was able to turn the downside into a benefit. He feels a citizen of Zurich, because the decisive factors are: "Where one has one’s friends, where one feels good, where one has work". With gaps in between he studied under Otto Müller (1905) - then very much a traditional sculptor - from 1939 to1943. Josephsohn has had his own atelier since 1943.

Quite rightly Josephsohn says that sculpture is not life. A thing may be very impressive in nature and yet impossible to sculpt. Sculpture, like music, has its own language. The artist has to find a language parallel to life, which has its own life but still picks up elements from life. His chosen subject is the human body - something that has exerted a major influence on artists through the centuries: moving and stationary, walking, seated, prone. The earliest illustration I could find of a Josephsohn sculpture was Small standing figure with folded hands dated 1945. This female nude already showed his typical methodology in plaster, archaic head-on - still somewhat traditional but showing many elements of his later work. Much of Josephsohn’s early work has been lost or destroyed. In this period, alongside the full-length or human half-figures, he made reliefs where strongly abstract forms of people and animals combined with geometric shapes (illus. 1,2,3). Josephsohn’s teacher, Otto Müller, was so impressed by these experiments in more modern imagery that he adopted his pupil’s concept.

In the mid-1950s Josephsohn reversed on his tracks, taking up the female model as the chief motif in his art. From here on all he wanted to make were figures: standing figures, half-figures and reliefs. During this period the geometric abstraction gradually disappeared from his work while the shapes of sculptures would steadily reduce. Very different things were taking up his interest, like the quest for a modernistic imagery.

Josephsohn’s reliefs are like the metopes of a Greek temple but without the epic element, while the freestanding sculptures increasingly take on the character of archaic idols. Unlike the sculpture, the reliefs are about relationships between the figures. Josephsohn works from a neutral background. This is to get a grip on the vehemence of form; by his own admission he never really succeeded with this in his freestanding works. On this he positions figures reduced to expressive volumes, as if in a pattern - usually a woman in relation to a man, occasionally a child. Initially he might add geometric shapes as divider/binder elements while the later reliefs feature a very substantial architrave making it even more archaic and weighty, while simultaneously sucking the viewer into this world.

Plaster is Josephsohn’s only material. Loam and clay are too soft for him, and stone too hard - what’s chipped away can’t be restored. Plaster is more spontaneous, surplus removals can be filled in again or added, giving the special character to the exterior of his sculpture. In the raw, chipped forms the artist’s fingerprints occasionally show up in the additions. Chipped into furious shapes the plaster population in and around Josephsohn’s atelier is whitely impressive. Heads and female half-figures, often reduced to their most rudimentary form, some complete, others in the process of formation - the difference is scarcely visible. Here again one clearly sees the progress of an over 40-year quest for a more and more fundamental form. One sees how, working from his models, he searches for a form to create a more and more general and universal image of man. The mythology here reminds me of the painter Willem de Kooning, whose later expressive works were also painstakingly constructed. If something was no good it was scraped away or endlessly painted-over until the painter considered the canvas complete. The exhibition also contains a number of small reliefs - not larger than 20 x 20 centimetres. These are sketches, rapidly modelled as an exercise for the bigger reliefs. But such is their expressive force that they can stand up as independent works of art.

Later on I see some of the sculptures return in bronze. Once again the half-figures make an overwhelming impression. In contrast to the plaster the bronze retains the light, making the surface impermeable, giving solidity. It made me think of Pisano’s breathtaking Solomon in the Opera del Duomo in Florence. But whereas the 14th century Pisano looked to create a super-human, heavenly exaltedness, Josephsohn - operating on a parallel - creates a poignant icon of modern man, as exalted as it is archaic but simultaneously tragic and full of compassion for the individual struggle that is existence. At first sight these figures are scarcely identifiable as humans; with head and torso pushed together, the artist gives the merest hints. His last works in particular show reduction taken to the ultimate.

In 1992 the architect Peter Märkli, a great admirer of Josephsohn, built a museum, more accurately a house, for Josephsohn’s sculpture, at Giornico, just south St. Gotthard; this was "La Congiunta". The half-figures, heads and reliefs are positioned or hung around the walls of two long concrete rooms and a number of smaller cells. The rooms are exclusively lit by natural light from above. The starkness and quiet of the rooms provides an ideal environment for Josephsohn’s’ sculpture. The full significance of the reliefs, half-figures and heads becomes very clear here, as does the difference with a sculptor like Alberto Giacometti or the human figures of Germaine Richier. For Giacometti it was all about sketching an image of reality as optical phenomenon, of man in relation to his environment or vis-à-vis nothingness. Richier’s post-war sculptures of people seek to embody the existential angst and destruction, in an open form. In contrast, Josephsohn’s sculpture is closed within itself and a direct link with the space that has such a major role in modern and contemporary sculpture is of no importance.

This is what the art critic Richard Häsli wrote in 1975: " .. these - so typical - standing, seated and prone sculptures, these heads, busts and half-figures are mere concepts, as it were, for the theme of the human form and of certain human individuals: hasty sketches not seeking completion as they will never be in a state to achieve this. Their their motive force is form and lack of form, hope and desperation". More than a quarter century later this observation is as accurate as ever. That, in this apparently traditional manner, with a loathing for all forms of modishness in art, Josephsohn has still found a stubborn but contemporary form is impressive.

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