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Acting from anterior motives

Hans Hartung, grandfather of modern abstract painting. Or so the artist considered himself to be. Andrew Graham-Dixon remains firmly unconvinced by his claims to fame
Precedence counts for much in art. The first abstract painting will inevitably impress many people more than the third, or fifth, or ninth. But general agreement on such matters is extremely rare, and when an artist makes vociferous claims about the extent of his own originality he should always be regarded with extreme caution. "I did it first" is the perennial, plaintive cry of the unsung mediocrity. He clutches at precedence like a drowning man at a straw, because he realises that it offers him his best and perhaps only chance of an afterlife. He may not be a good artist, let alone a great one. But he knows that, if he can persuade others that he has made a significant innovation, he will be remembered and his works dutifully labelled Important and Influential.

"Hans Hartung: Works on Paper 1922-56", an exhibition currently at the Tate Gallery, and the catalogue which accompanies it, written by Jennifer Mundy, seek to present Hartung as a pioneering figure in the history of 20th-century painting. Born in Leipzig, in East Germany, in 1904, Hartung was, we are to believe, "an astoundingly original" artist, who in the period between the two World Wars invented quite new forms of lyrical and gestural abstraction. His innovations, it is suggested, crucially shaped the aesthetic attitudes of the most celebrated artists of the 1950s, including the painters of the New York School, who are mildly chastised for failing to acknowledge him. The exhibition, held in the somewhat unappealing basement galleries of the Tate, is a sparsely attended and quiet event, but these are fairly loud claims.

No secret is made of the fact that both exhibition and book were planned in association with the Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman Foundation in Antibes set up after the artist's death in 1989 to tend the flame of his reputation. It is helpful to have this vested institutional interest in the enhancement of Hartung's standing openly declared. But the effect of the exhibition is the opposite to that intended. Hartung is confirmed as an incorrigibly minor talent. Moreover, his one compensation for lack of ability and inspiration, the supposed innovativeness to which he laid claim so insistently in later life, stands revealed as at best a chimera of the artist's imagination and, at worst, an outright piece of fraudulence.

Hartung's works on paper, which he himself regarded as among his finest productions, fall into various distinct groups. There are several entirely abstract but extremely slight watercolours, dated 1922, which look more like a painter's experiments with his palette than premeditated works of art. There are a few almost impressive ink drawings of the altarpiece of Dresden Cathedral, dated to the same year, in which the subject has been rendered nearly unrecognisable by a calligraphic structure of lines suggesting the influence on the young Hartung of Ludwig Kirchner. There are several works executed in red chalk or charcoal on brown paper, consisting in each case of just a few lines, wedges or v-shapes floating in space, all highly reminiscent of the forms used by Malevich in his Suprematist phase. These are dated 1924.

There are also very many works from the 1930s, in which Hartung appears to be attempting a form of Surrealist "automatic writing", as practised also (and rather more intriguingly) by Andre Masson. In such doodles he aspires to the innocence and psychic vulnerability of children's art but gives himself away by all manner of nervous adult tics and mannerisms, most notably a rather too polite respect for the edge of the paper, over which the would-be wild line of the artist seldom dares to creep.

Then, finally, there are various works of the 1940s and 1950s, in which elements of all the above are repeated, or intermingled, by rote. Hartung may, in these works, have been responding to the works of American painters such as Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, despite what is commonly said about such influences travelling across the Atlantic in the other direction. We may regard Hartung's later, ponderous attempts at spontaneity, it is hinted, as the works of an artist who declined somewhat as he grew older. How it is possible to decline when no eminence has been attained in the first place goes unexplained.

The interesting but fundamentally perverse notion that Hartung's oeuvre might represent a considerable achievement dates, as Jennifer Mundy points out, to just after the Second World War. In 1947 the young Alain Resnais made a hagiographical film about him, dwelling in close-up on the movements of the artist's hands as he painted and drew in his Paris studio. While Resnais was fooling himself that Hartung's every gesture contained an epiphany, the critic Jean-Jose Marchand was, even more charitably, describing Hartung's inchoate scribbles as "the cry of modern man". Marchand added that although Hartung's works might, to the untutored eye, seem to be lacking all reference to reality, he was, in fact, "a great realist painter in the true sense of the term, painting ceaselessly the portrait of the soul of the world today".

Up until then Hartung's work had met with general indifference on the rare occasions when he had managed to exhibit it. The sudden reverse in the artist's critical fortune after 1945 seems to have had little to do with his merits as an artist, and much to do with his heroic conduct during the war. Having fled to Paris from his native Germany in the 1930s, Hartung had signed up with the French Foreign Legion because he felt a moral obligation to fight the Nazis. He saw action and lost a leg in the service of his adopted country. The respect and gratitude due to an honoured mutile de guerre took the form, in Hartung's case, of well-mentioned but ill-judged paeans of praise to his work.

It may have been at around this time that Hartung began - whether deludedly or dishonestly may never be known - to construct the myth of himself as one of the grandfathers of modern abstract painting. By 1948 a critic called Rene de Solier was talking of Hartung's "formidable anteriority". Jennifer Mundy quotes the remark approvingly. But on what foundations, exactly, does Hartung's presumed "anteriority", or originality, rest? Largely, it appears, on the credulous goodwill of his supporters, and on various unsubstantiated and somewhat confused assertions made by Hartung himself.

Mundy is generous enough to find portents of high modernist abstraction even in Hartung's schoolboy doodles. A comically slight photograph of a partially defaced page of sums is solemnly produced as a court exhibit to this effect, supposedly proving that Hartung "drew abstract patterns in his exercise books, sometimes over the top of his schoolwork, using both the tip and the back of his nib to produce a variety of lines and marks". Some may think she doth protest too much. The mere fact that Hartung felt impelled to keep such worn and dubious juvenilia suggests an unhealthy obsession with the past. Mondrian would not have kept his schoolboy scribblings.

The following passage from Mundy's catalogue essay, concerning the origins of Hartung's 1922 watercolours, is also, perhaps, more interesting than its author intended.

"At this point, at least by his own account, Hartung knew nothing of the more radical tendencies in Modern art - Cubism, or the recent works of Malevich or Mondrian. He was not even aware, he claimed, of Kandinsky's abstract paintings, executed in Munich in the period 1910-1914 ... However, it remains a remarkable fact that in January 1922, aged only 17, he executed a series of strikingly self-assured abstract watercolours."

There is a hint here ("at least by his own account ... he claimed") that even his staunch supporter Mundy finds it a little hard to believe in Hartung's claims of blissful ignorance. But even if we, too, strain our credulity to the point of accepting the highly implausible proposition in question - namely, that an adolescent did indeed, by some extraordinary coincidence, produce works of art that look so much like bad pastiches of Kandinsky and Malevich, without knowing that Kandinsky and Malevich had ever existed - this does not make him an original artist. It merely makes him an unoriginal artist who was unaware of his unoriginality.

It is more likely than not, however, that Hartung deliberately set out to conceal his indebtedness to other artists. Perhaps he deceived himself too, and actually believed his own claims. He was certainly preoccupied, to an unusual and perhaps almost paranoid extent, with proving his own "anteriority" (and in the light of that, it may not have been entirely wise of Mundy to accept Hartung's own dating of his work, as she has done, at face value).

Late in life, on the basis of little more than having once made the remark "I like to be in action on the canvas", Hartung liked to claim that he had invented Action Painting (it would be interesting to know what Jackson Pollock would have had to say about that); and, in his autobiography, he remarked of the "1922" watercolours, "at this period there did not exist anywhere yet paintings as clearly and wholly 'informel', lyrical, or 'tachiste' - as we would say after the war". Even if he did paint them in 1922, that is simply not true. Never mind Kandinsky and Malevich - Turner's late watercolours, painted some 70 years earlier, are far more lyrical, tachiste and revolutionary in their informality than any work ever touched by the hand of Hartung. "I did it first," cries the mediocrity. "I did it first." But no, he did not even do that.

n 'Hans Hartung: Works on Paper 1922-56' is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 to 20 Oct. Information: 0171-887 8000