EXHIBITIONS : Abstract, but no longer obscure

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The Tate's basement galleries can be gloomy - especially during the summer months, when they are generally used for archive exhibitions of prints and drawings. This year's show in the downstairs spaces is of a different order. "Hans Hartung: Works on Paper 1922-56" is a dignified, moving account of an artist to whom the fates were mostly unkind and who has only a minor reputation today. True, he was briefly famous in the Fifties, but wrongly labelled a Parisian existentialist. In the light of this show I would place him in the mainstream of modern German art, and of international modernism too.

During his early years Hartung often reminds the viewer of Kandinsky and Nolde, as we would expect. Later, in Paris around 1935, he decided not to be respectful to Cubism and felt that his art was therefore liberated. He was right. I reproduce an untitled watercolour of that year. It's hardly Germanic, owes nothing to the School of Paris and really is more like post-war American art. In the Forties I find affinities between Hartung and Hans Hofmann, the slightly older German expatriate painter whose life in New York and influence on Abstract Expressionism remains unexplored. Hartung's career has also been obscure, but the curator, Jennifer Mundy, has been to the Fondation Hans Hartung in Antibes and has come back with unpublished works, documentary information and a brave aesthetic story.

Hartung was born in Leipzig in 1904 and grew up in Dresden. He was a legatee of German expressionism but perhaps preferred Goya and Rembrandt. All the more surprising, then, that he should have made a sudden leap into full abstraction around 1923-24. These gestural drawings, done in charcoal and red and black, are works of true originality. And their daring is owed to the fact that they were drawings on paper. No parallel paintings exist, for Hartung felt that pigment on canvas was too official a medium. When drawing, however, he could be completely himself and work without rules.

Mundy thinks that Hartung lacked self-confidence, and perhaps this is proved by his tentative attitude to painting. None the less the drawings prove that he had an instinctive and occasionally sublime feeling for things that only he could do. No doubt this is why he felt equivocal about contemporary French art. Hartung was in Paris from 1926 onwards, overwhelmed by the presence of Picasso, Leger and Matisse, all figurative painters. He could have joined groupings of abstract artists but preferred to find his own path. With his first wife, the Norwegian painter Anna-Eva Bergman, he experimented with the Golden Section, believing that classical harmonies would underpin his experiments. Surely this was mistaken. His genius was for touch and gesture, not measurement.

After 1933 it was clear that Hartung and Anna-Eva could not return to Germany. They built themselves a primitive modernist house in Menorca and there painted, more or less in isolation. Poverty and ill-health destroyed their marriage and it is significant that Hartung's breakthrough drawings of c1935 were done at a time of personal desperation. At the Tate there are a handful of Hartung paintings, some from this period. He made them by carefully copying, enlarging and transferring ideas that he had previously expressed, more swiftly, in drawing. This sounds a laborious and perhaps not quite genuine way to make a free abstract painting. But the results work well.

With the outbreak of war, Hartung, still a German national, thought of fleeing to America. Instead he joined the French Foreign Legion. He would have been a valuable recruit to the New York school and was probably not much of a soldier. A reason for staying in France was that he had married Roberta, the daughter of the sculptor Julio Gonzales. Some drawings show Hartung's respect for his father-in-law's work. Alas, they are not quite convincing. Hartung was in hiding with the Gonzales family in the South of France in the latter part of the war. After rejoining the Foreign Legion he lost a leg in battle. He also lost all his wartime drawings, while Allied bombings destroyed the work he had left behind in Germany.

After the war it took a little time for Hartung to become an acclaimed artist. I guess that his popularity increased as his originality faded. A number of later drawings make me feel uneasy; not only because they resemble the work of such famous newcomers as Soulages, but also because they appear to have been deliberately done in preparation for painting. All in all, few modern artists so convince one that experimental abstract drawing is a matter of internal life, not a response to circumstances. Talking of circumstances, Hartung re-met Anna-Eva in 1952. They quickly divorced their spouses, remarried and went to Antibes, where I understand they lived happily ever afterwards.

Over in the East End, the Whitechapel Open is a weaker show than for many years past, probably because it's the biggest ever of these biannual celebrations. Around 100 artists are represented, spread over five sites. In the Whitechapel Gallery itself the exhibition contains no first-rate art, but at least it looks moderately professional. Displays in the other galleries are dispiriting. They appear randomly chosen, without conviction or taste.

The selectors (all members of the Whitechapel staff) should have been more critical. The show is too big and contains too many hopeless artists. And the judges should have ruthlessly cut out the childishness one sees everywhere. The exhibit chosen by the Whitechapel for its poster is Yasu Ichige's Box Garden B. On a tallish plinth, toy lions and bears surround a toy figure in a cape who brandishes a sword at them. It's a poor thing, but the poster designers would have been hard pressed to find a strong image anywhere else in the show. The painting is especially enfeebled by a tendency to apply paint as though through gauze. Only George Blacklock seems to really handle his paint and brush. I recommend that the next Open should be chosen by artists rather than adminstrators.

! Hans Hartung: Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 20 Oct. Whitechapel Open: various venues around east London (information 0171 522 7898), to 15 Sept.