Simon Hantaï, c. 1967. Photo: Édouard Boubat.
Simon Handl is born on 7 December 1922 in Bia (Hungary), near Budapest. His parents belong to a small Catholic community of Swabian émigrés from Germany. In 1939, in reaction to Hitler's policies, the family Magyarizes its name to Hantaï.
After an attack of diphtheria, the boy, then aged seven, loses his sight for four months.
In spring of 1941, Hantaï enters the Budapest School of Fine Arts. He participates enthusiastically in student life.
In March 1944, he speaks out publicly against Nazi Germany and the Hungarian government's collaboration with the occupier. After Budapest is liberated by Soviet troops in February 1945 the art world returns to life with intensity. Hantaï is an active participant.
September 1945-May 1946: he takes the art history course taught by François Gachot, director of the French Cultural Institute, and under his guidance discovers Matisse and above all Bonnard.
6 October 1946: he joins the Magyar Communist Party.
In spring 1948 Hantaï receives a grant from the Hungarian Ministry of Culture to continue his studies in Paris. He leaves for Italy in early May with his wife, Zsuzsa. The couple visits Rome. Their travels take them to Ravenna, where the mosaics of Galla Placidia's mausoleum are a revelation for the artist. The 24th Venice Biennale in August gives them the opportunity to discover modern European painting.
In Budapest, the Communists have taken over what will henceforth be called the People's Republic of Hungary. Since the grant promised by the former ministry will not be forthcoming, Hantaï and his wife decide not to return. They arrive in Paris in September.
Summer 1949: the Hantaïs move into the cité des Fleurs in the 17th arrondissement.
These early days in Paris are an essential formative period for the artist. He spends his time in museums and galleries, trying to understand the diversity of the French art scene at a moment when Surrealism is gradually reconstituting itself, the School of Paris is emerging, and new American paintings are making their debut. There is much debate over abstract and figurative art, “hot” and “cold” abstraction, and Surrealist or gestural automatism.
Hantaï experiments with multiple techniques: pochoir (stenciling) and decoupage, collage, grattage, decalcomania, imprint and frottage, coulage, and even froissage or pliage.
He and his circle of Hungarian friends (mainly Vera and François Molnar, Pierre and Vera Szekely, and, upon her arrival from Hungary in 1950, Judit Reigl) help each other out. Emulation drives these young artists to interact and experiment. Hantaï also develops relationships with American painters, particularly Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and Riopelle.
In December 1952, Hantaï leaves a small unsigned painting-object on André Breton's doorstep. The latter immediately installs the piece in a showcase at the new Surrealist gallery À l'Étoile Scellée and offers Hantaï his first one-man show in January 1953. In the preface to the catalogue, Breton resoundingly welcomes Hantaï to the group and concludes: “Once again, as perhaps every ten years, a great DEPARTURE” (André Breton, Préface, Simon Hantaï, exh. cat., Paris, À l'Étoile Scellée, 1953).
Jean Schuster, the editor in chief of the magazine Medium: communication surréaliste, invites Hantaï to provide all the illustrations for the first issue, the “Simon Hantaï number,” which would come out in November 1953.
January 1955: in the fourth issue of Medium: communication surréaliste, Hantaï and Schuster publish a text challenging the Surrealists, “Une démolition au platane”.
March: Hantaï takes part in the “Alice in Wonderland” exhibition organized by Charles Estienne at the Galerie Kléber, a bookstore-gallery.
On 11 March 1955, Hantaï sends Breton a letter confirming his break with the Surrealist group.
As of late summer 1955, Hantaï systematically uses a “scraping” device, the metal casing of an old alarm clock found some time earlier.
In May-June 1956 his second one-man exhibition opens at the Galerie Kléber: “Sexe-Prime. Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset et autres peintures de Simon Hantaï”. The title is also that of the emblematic painting-manifesto created on 18 September 1955.
March: At the Galerie Kléber, Georges Mathieu organizes, together with Hantaï, “Les Cérémonies commémoratives de la deuxième condamnation de Siger de Brabant”, a series of demonstrations in four cycles (sacerdotal, royal, bourgeois, and popular) consisting of performances, installations, and lectures. No paintings are shown. But Hantaï, not in complete agreement with the project in its final form, distances himself from Mathieu.
On March, 25th 1957 the Surrealist group publishes a tract signed by virtually every member, “Coup de semonce”, counter-attacking and publicly expelling Hantaï.
March 1958: “Peintures récentes. Souvenir de l'avenir,” a one-man show by Hantaï at the Galerie Kléber, exhibits works of two different types created in 1957-1958: paintings using signs, and paintings explicitly dedicated to Catholic saints, theologians, thinkers, and poets.
Beginning in autumn of 1958 and continuing for about a year, Hantaï will work every day on two monumental paintings. Every morning he dedicates himself to Peinture (Écriture rose) (129 3/4 × 167 1/8 in.), whose surface is covered with philosophical, theological, and liturgical texts copied in ink, the color varying by cycle. He notes each day's date in black ink, and also inscribes on the canvas the years of his own life.
His afternoons are dedicated to another canvas, scarcely smaller (128 3/8 × 157 1/2 in.), worked in a different manner, without writing: À Galla Placidia.
March 1959: First retrospective, at the Galerie Kléber, recapitulating the Paris years: “Simon Hantaï. Peintures 1949-1959.”
Hantaï abandons writing and gesture, introducing a completely new work method: pliage (folding). Between 1960 and 1982 he will produce eight series, each corresponding to a different procedure.
In the first series, once the canvas is crumpled from edge to edge, the visible parts are painted before being unfolded, then stretched, creating a completely covered space. This suite, arranged in four categories, will later be entitled Mariales. Presented at the Galerie Kléber from 25 May through late June 1962 under the title “Simon Hantaï: Peintures mariales,” it brings together sixteen of the twenty-seven extant Mariales.
The Catamurons series (from the name of a vacation house rented at Varengeville) includes over twenty paintings, using pliage only in the center of the work.
In the autumn Anna Hantai, Simon's mother, visits him in Paris (he will not see her again before her death in 1982).
It is around this time that Daniel Buren begins to frequent Hantaï's studio, which is close to his own in the cité des Fleurs. In early 1966 he brings along Michel Parmentier, who will become another intimate.
The series begun in 1964, Maman! Maman!, dits: La Saucisse refers to a quotation from Henri Michaux. Based on repeated pliages of a single ovoid form recalling the original cell, it includes twenty-six large-scale canvases, later called Panses, as well as many smaller works.
The Hantaï family settles in Meun, near Fontainebleau. Simon and Zsuzsa become French citizens.
May-June 1967: Hantaï participates in the exhibition “Dix ans d'art vivant. 1955-1965” at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul. He is the first winner of the Fondation's prize.
June-July 1967: “Simon Hantaï: Peintures 1960-1967” show at the Galerie Jean Fournier & Cie. Hantaï, entitling the list of works “Silences rétiniens,” enumerates the four series of paintings produced between 1960 and 1967, giving them the overall denomination of “Peintures mariales”. The list closes with the words: “Le pliage comme méthode”, signed S.H. Looking back over seven years of work, Hantaï imposes an interpretation upon it which will be generally adopted.
In 1967-1968 Hantaï produces the Meuns series. The canvas, knotted at the four corners and sometimes at the center, is covered with paint, most often monochrome. After a first group with simple shapes and occasional added colors come more complex Meuns. The ensemble is shown in May-June 1968 at the Galerie Jean Fournier & Cie. as part of the “Peintures récentes” show.
December 1968-March 1969: large one-man show at the Fondation Maeght. Hantaï attends the opening. He visits the chapel at Vence, and will keep a vivid memory of the light diffused by Matisse's stained glass windows.
June-July: the Études dedicated to the poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960), involving crumpled canvas, regularly folded, and monochrome paint, produced from January through May 1969, are shown at the Galerie Jean Fournier.
October: François Mathey organizes a one-day hanging at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs of a group of Études to be considered for a public commission at a secondary school in Trappes.
April-May: the Études pour un mur, paper models for the wall of the Trappes secondary school (118 1/8 × 551 3/16 in.) are shown at the ARC/Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The wall, in screenprinted, enameled sheet metal, will be installed on the site in 1973.
October-November: “Hantaï: Paintings 1960-1970,” his first one-man show in New York, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. A second exhibition will take place in 1975.
June-July: “Le Pliage comme méthode: regard sur dix années”, Galerie Jean Fournier.
Execution of the Wall for the French Pavilion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
14 April-13 May: the Galerie Jean Fournier presented Aquarelles.
May-September: Hantaï is an important participant in the exhibition “60-72: douze ans d'art contemporain en France”, organized by François Mathey at the Grand Palais, Paris.
Hantaï begins the Blancs series (1973-1974), whose pliages are designed so the unpainted dominates the painted surface.
Exploring still another mode of pliage, Hantaï paints the first Tabulas, from the Latin word meaning “table” (1973-1976). Their pliage is organized more strictly, generally in a regular grid, allowing the surface to be organized as an assemblage of single-color squares separated by unpainted “breathing spaces”. He will continue making Tabulas until 1982.
Beginning in 1972-1973, Hantaï almost always uses acrylic paint, which is easier to work with on canvases that are folded and unfolded. He also tends to select thinner and thinner canvases, going so far as to use extra-wide sheet linen (118 1/8 in.).
His first museum retrospective, organized by Bernard Ceysson, takes place in November-December 1973 at the Musée d'Art et d'Industrie de Saint-Étienne.
March-April: the Galerie Jean Fournier presents the Blancs series, in two sequences.
26 May-13 September: a large-scale retrospective, “Hantaï”, at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, in Paris, organized by François Mathey and Dominique Bozo.
Hantaï and Jean Fournier work closely on the selection of works—this is the first exhibition of Peinture (Écriture rose)—as well as on the content and layout of the catalogue, which resembles an artist's book.
After May 1976, Hantaï stops painting for three and a half years.
Summer: In Meun, Jean-Michel Meurice shoots a 58' film (a longer version of a film made in 1974) entitled Simon Hantaï ou Les Silences rétiniens.
It shows the painter at work, discussing the various stages of the production of the Tabulas.
Commissioned by Renault's Centre de Recherches Arts et Industries, Hantaï produces four large decorative panels, screenprinted on Formica, which will be installed in the company's dining room at Rueil-Malmaison.
August: Simon Hantaï and his family return to Paris.
Beginning of a second series of Tabulas (1980-1982), characterized by the enlargement of the tabular modules and the interpenetration of the colored shapes with the white background. They are exhibited at the Galerie Jean Fournier in October-November.
Hantaï is awarded the Grand Prix National des Arts Plastiques.
May-August: Jean-Louis Froment organizes the exhibition “Simon Hantaï 1960-1976”, dedicated to the pliageyears, at the CAPC in Bordeaux. A retrospective section is presented in the smaller rooms and a group of new, very large Tabulas (354 5/16 × 590 9/16 in.) in the imposing nave.
June-September: Hantaï represents France at the 40th Venice Biennale with eighteen Tabulas.
June-July: exhibition at the Galerie Jean Fournier of the Tabulas lilas, the most recent. Five works are fastened to the gallery walls, in the light from the glass roof; two others are spread on the ground.
After this show, Hantaï decides to no longer exhibit at the Galerie Jean Fournier and gradually withdraws from public life.
Publication of the monograph Simon Hantaï, by Anne Baldassari, after ten years of near-total silence on the part of the artist. The latter agreed to speak with her at length over summer and winter 1991 to prepare the work.
The painter Antonio Semeraro, Hantaï's friend since the 1980s, has gradually opened into a dialogue with him on questions that preoccupy them both: edges, reserves, intervals, framing, and reframing. Hantaï, looking back on his work, decides with Semeraro's help to enter into an active phase of destruction/reconstruction. This involves destroying a number of his paintings: he buries some in the garden in Meun and cuts others up, reframing parts of them to create a new series, the Laissées.
February-March: Hantaï participates in the exhibition “L'Empreinte” at the Centre Pompidou (whose curators are Georges Didi-Huberman and Didier Semin) with pliages from 1968, 1971, and 1973, but also three works “absolutely never before seen—unforeseen, even”: three screenprints on canvas based on photographs of works seen in snail's eye perspective, enlarged, re-angled, reframed.
Didi-Huberman opens a dialogue and a correspondence with the artist which will lead to the publication of an essay. L'Étoilement. Conversation avec Hantaï will be published by Éditions de Minuit in February 1998.
November: donation and presentation at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris of five large canvases, among them À Galla Placidia, and ten other small paintings produced between 1950 and 1991.
Hantaï ends the retreat he has imposed on himself since 1982.
March: publication of the catalogue Donation de Simon Hantaï by the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Notes from the artist, speaking out for the first time in fifteen years, accompany reproductions of his works.
March-June: one-man show, “Laissées et autres peintures”, organized by Alfred Pacquement at Renn Espace in Paris.
May-August: opening in Münster of a spectacular monographic exhibition including thirty-six works, eleven of them Mariales.
May-September: the exhibition “La peinture après l'abstraction” at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris includes many works by Hantaï.
Beginning of discussions, then a correspondence-continuing until the end of Hantaï's life with the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.
Simon Hantaï collabore à plusieurs projets éditoriaux avec les philosophes Jacques Derrida et Jean-Luc Nancy (Le toucher Jean-Luc Nancy et La Connaissance des textes) pour lesquels il réalise des travaux de copie sur toile.
February-April: for the exhibition “Les Fables du Lieu” at Le Fresnoy–Studio National des Arts Contemporains at Tourcoing, curated by Georges Didi-Huberman, Hantaï has digital prints made on canvas, known as the Suaires, based on the Tabulas lilas exhibited in 1982. Four of them are shown at the Galerie Jean Fournier in May-June.
Important donation by Hantaï to the Centre Pompidou (twelve small paintings from 1950-1986 and six large paintings), exhibited the same year at the Musée National d'Art Moderne.
Mars-avril : Exposition Simon Hantaï & François Rouan : conversation à la Galerie Jean Fournier. A cette occasion, Hantaï fait procéder à de nouveaux réglages et cadrages des fichiers numériques de Tabula Lilas, afin d'obtenir des images diaphanes, immatérielles, presqu'irréelles : les H.b.l. (Hebhel). Ce seront ses dernières œuvres.
February-May: the exhibition “La couleur toujours recommencée”, organized by the Musée Fabre in Montpellier as a tribute to Jean Fournier, who had died the year before, gives a significant place to Hantaï.
12 September: Simon Hantaï dies at his home in Paris.