The French term “atelier” carries with it an idea of craftsmanship and plunges the imagination into a nineteenth-century painter’s studio, with its smells of wood and canvas. Instead of ‘studio’, the German photographer Hans Hansen has always given his studio the name Atelier Hans Hansen. The importance given to this term, as being central to understanding Hansen’s career, is immediately noted in the fact that it was selected as the title of his first solo show in Austria.
Atelier Hans Hansen
Experimentation, personalization and an autodidactic approach are at the core of the work of this artist, which is very well represented by the selection of free and commissioned works from 1958 to 2015 exhibited at Camera Austria. The project was conceived by the artist Annette Kelm and the designer Hendrik Schwantes, in collaboration with Hans Hansen himself. The exhibition is accompanied by an essay written by the artist and designer Anna Voswinckel for the n. 59 “collectible” leaflet created by Camera Austria. The text guides the viewer through the exhibition. It doesn’t follow a chronological order but more a thematic path, which is explained very well by Voswinckel by putting Hansen’s work in the right context: by narrating his beginnings as an autodidact after having been expelled from the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1962, as well as analyzing with great attention the corpus of the exhibited work.
The context Voswinckel writes about is one of the controversy between free and applied photography. She posits: “The demarcation between artistic photography and applied photography harks back to the emancipation movement of author photography in the 1970s. […] Around twenty years later, artistic and applied photography had once again grown closer through overlapping areas in art, popular culture, and design.” Then, she added that commissioned photography in fashion or advertising is increasingly included in the art world, and that contemporary artists have, in recent times, been called into active collaborations by businesses. This new patronage could be very productive if the commissions are taken as occasions of experimentations and possibilities to develop certain techniques – as in the case of Hansen, where the boundaries between free and commissioned works are so blurred that his language can always be seen as artistic or, quoting Voswinckel, “pictorial.”
Portraying Real Things
Hansen’s main interest is portraying “things”, and thanks to the use of light tables, he is able to capture the essence of them, even to abstract them. One example is the egg represented frontally on a grey background, the o. T. (Ei) from 1998. Nowadays, our eyes are so used to seeing similar subjects realized in 3D graphics that, though simplistic, it is essential to stress the date of this work and to say how important it is to always see artworks in person. In this case, the porosity of the egg’s shell is visible only in front of the photograph. With this, all the beauty and perfection of the natural form becomes evident; even the sacristy lent to it by the way it seems suspended. This has a powerful connection to art history: the egg in front of a grey seashell, hanging over the Madonna’s head in the Pala Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, which anticipates metaphysical painting by almost half a millennium in this particular.
The beauty of the “reality” of the photographs is also evident in o. T. (Kachelraum), commissioned by Kodak AG in 1986. The Camera Austria shows four of the six photos in the series. In this case, the artist was able to photograph a room with a blue-tiled floor and walls on two sides, with a Plexiglas wall on the side of the camera. He then managed to capture the water as it filled the room. The image is not only a tribute to the paintings of Hans Peter Reuter, but also a homage to photography, which is able to represent certain details, like the mirroring of the white lines between the tiles and the disappearance of this effect once the room is almost full of water, also causing a distortion of perspective.
Water is one of Hansen’s favorite subjects. His studies of water and glass were the main leitmotiv with which he really felt he had started a career, thanks to the support in the early 60s of Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala, known for his glass objects of which many designed for Iittala are still very popular today. In 1960, Hansen first encountered Wirkkala’s work at the Milan Triennale and he realized a black and white photograph of a water surface as a commentary on the glass objects. They started to write to each other and this conversation ended up with a commission in 1962. The studies of glass and water were then developed in the project Glaswasser, which is well represented in the exhibition.
Water and glass that look the same in front of the camera, enlarged objects and things that have become valuable on their own and no longer for their use – the simplicity and two-dimensionality of o. T. (Bikini) made for “Geo” in 2011, for example – and hidden parts of objects that stress the importance of form, like o. T. (zerlegter Golf) from 1988, commissioned by Volkswagen AG – and the supreme mastery of techniques gave Hansen the ability to capture the soul of things, thanks to his great skill in using the main vehicle of photography and of life: light. His personal view on things and his language full of truth are well represented at Camera Austria, which drives those unfamiliar with his work to research further and the experts to appreciate the high quality of the selected photographs.
Featured image: Hans Hansen – o.T. (Plant Models), 2007. Courtesy Camera Austria © The Artist.