Celebrated for his method of folding, used as a pictorial process since 1960, Simon Hantaï has inscribed his career in a profound artistic renewal as well as a new way of thinking about painting. In the six decades since its beginnings in post-war Paris, Hantaï’s art has undergone several important renewals that reflect the research spirit of this immensely significant painter of the second half of the twentieth century.
Born Simon Handl in Bia in 1922, Hantaï studied at the School of Fine Arts in Budapest where he obtained a scholarship in the spring of 1948 that allowed him to spend a year in Paris. Following a change of regime in Hungary, Hantaï and his wife Zsuzsa decided to settle permanently in Paris, after having made a great trip to Italy, where they discovered the masterpieces of Italian art, including the Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna.
In Paris, Hantaï frequented Hungarian artists in exile like him, and was close to the Surrealist movement, notably André Breton, who wrote the preface to the catalogue of his first exhibition at the Galerie L’Étoile Scellée in 1953. Struck by the discovery of Georges Mathieu, but especially of Jackson Pollock, Hantaï broke with the Surrealist movement in 1955, abandoned figuration and directed his practice towards greater gestuality. He made large-format canvases, including Sexe-Prime. Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset in 1956, presented during his second exhibition at the Galerie Kleber.
1960 marked a decisive turning point for the rest of his career. By making folding a new pictorial process, Hantaï profoundly renewed his way of painting, and defined its singularity. This gave rise to several series, each corresponding to a new folding system: the Mariales (1960-1962), the Catamurons (1963-1965) the Panses (1964-1967), the Meuns (1967-1968), the Études (1968-1971), the Aquarelles (1971), the Blancs (1973-1974) and finally the Tabulas (1973-1982), a series that was completed the year that he represented France at the Venice Biennale and chose to withdraw from the artistic scene.
By means of this technique, Hantaï freed the canvas from its chassis to give free rein to the intelligence of his hand, giving up “the privileges of talent.” Under his fingers, the folded, knotted, crumpled, deformed canvas became a living matter as much as a surface to paint on. Blindly, Hantai applied the paint, leaving room for unpredictability. Once “liberated,” restretched, the miracle of chance occured. Only then did Hantaï discover the work he had created: the unfolding, as a revelation, revealed the pattern of chromatic contrasts between the hidden areas, the folded segments, and the painted surfaces.
Inspired by Matisse, especially the Nus Bleus, Hantaï’s exploration of folding followed in the footsteps of the cut-up gouaches, except that for him, it was folding that served as scissors. Through his techniques, Hantaï highlighted the breathing of the white space left free of paint, which structured the composition, and gave the unpainted surfaces the role of structuring the space, in dialogue with the colour, in a strong spiritual dimension.
Having become a French citizen in 1966, Simon Hantaï had a great retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1976, and then a second one in 2013. His works are exhibited in some forty public collections around the world, including those of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Musée d’Art Moderne in the City of Paris, the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.