Obituary: Werner Haftmann

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The Independent Culture
WHEN, IN 1949, German art historians assembled at Nymphenburg Castle for their annual convention, their proceedings were rudely interrupted by an unscheduled and vehement attack against the conservatism of the establishment, delivered by Werner Haftmann, a young man whose area of expertise was the sculpture of the Italian Middle Ages.

Haftmann, who had studied art and archaeology at the universities of Berlin and Gottingen, had spent some years as an assistant at the German Art Historical Institute in Florence and was now teaching in Hamburg. The experience of art under National Socialism had left him with a deep- rooted conviction of the importance of contemporary art, and he would devote his further career not just to forcing his peers to discuss Modernism, but also to opening its doors to a German public starved of modern art since the beginning of the Third Reich.

He became the main prophet and advocate of abstract art in the new Federal Republic. He published well- regarded works on Paul Klee and other modern masters, and finally established himself, in 1954, with the seminal Painting in the Twentieth Century, the first comprehensive survey of its kind in German, and a standard text for decades to come. (It was published in English in 1961.) Painting in the Twentieth Century set out a programme Haftmann was to pursue throughout his career by emphasising Abstract Expressionism over all other movements and traditions.

The next milestone in his career was his curatorship of the Documenta, Germany's most important show of international modern art, which is still held every four years in Kassel, Westphalia. In the first Documenta under his charge, Haftmann introduced 130,000 German art lovers to artists such as Picasso and avant-garde styles such as Cubism, Constructivism and Surrealism; in the third, in 1964, he gave the first important showing to the young and still unknown Josef Beuys. He was also largely responsible for introducing Pop Art to a German and a European public.

Haftmann was a passionate advocate of Abstract Expressionism, whose love of painters such as Nay, Pollock or Wols somewhat eclipsed other artistic developments. To him, Abstract Expressionism was not merely another artistic development, but the beginning of a universal language in which he believed with almost Utopian fervour.

His understanding of Modernism was essentially romantic, and led him to the vehement rejection of all art with overtly political or social content: too deeply was he horrified by the abuse of art under National Socialism. Politics could only intrude into the individual struggle of the artist with his own creativity. Moreover, in a time in which the chief project of the Federal Republic was a reaffirmation of personal freedom and the reliance on the virtues on economic advancement, the artistic and intellectual influences emanating from New York seemed to embody the heroic individualist virtues of the young state more than any amount of political agitation and critical reflection could.

In 1968, Haftmann accepted the directorship of the new National Gallery in Berlin. He presided initially over a skeleton collection, depleted by Nazi policies of confiscation, destruction and selling-off of art, and over a building ill-suited for the display of modern art. During his short tenure - he left in 1974 - he succeeded not only in acquiring and borrowing important works of art, but also in commissioning a new gallery building from Mies van der Rohe, soon recognised as a work of art in its own right.

Haftmann concentrated thereafter on writing about art. His romantic conviction that artists were essentially lonely figures at the margins of society was mirrored by his own highly influential crusade for new styles, and it seems appropriate that he once declared his favourite fictional heroes to be Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn.

Werner Haftmann, art historian and critic: born Glwno, Poland 28 April 1912; married 1987 Evelyn Gutbrod; died Tegernsee, Germany 29 July 1999.