Exhibition on Hans Uhlmann: bars on sculptures

“In front of the window of the cell a double latticework of solid iron bars of little delicate form, but above it, on the other side of the wall, you could sometimes see the radio tower in all its dainty, slender, air-flushed glory.” In the barred view of the filigree steel lattice construction, the Hans Uhlmann describes in his prison diary on February 3, 1935, one can literally see the wire figures and metal sculptures of one of the most prominent sculptors of the young Federal Republic of Germany already being formed.

The spatial lines are broken and closed, which simultaneously describe both: the experience of imprisonment and the longing for freedom. “Room Lines” is the name of the exhibition in the Kunsthaus Dahlem, which is well worth seeing and is primarily devoted to Uhlmann’s graphic work from 1933 to 1960. The reason for this retrospective is the meritorious publication of his diaries from his prison years in Tegel (1933-35), which provide intimate insights into both his tormenting prison experiences and his artistic development.

In prison he remained artistically active

Soon after the NSDAP’s election victory, the native Berliner – a trained engineer, music lover and communist – lost his job at the Technical University of Berlin and was arrested by the Gestapo during a leaflet campaign in 1933, interrogated in the notorious Columbia House and charged with preparing to commit high treason at one and a half years in prison.

His diaries, written there in French and later translated into German, tell a vivid story of how spiritual nourishment and freedom can help to endure hunger and bondage. Uhlmann literally devoured the books of French authors such as Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo and Jean Cocteau, which his artist friend Jeanne Mammen was able to procure for him as well as drawing material. He filled three notebooks with sketches, which are being exhibited and also published here for the first time.

The sketchbooks can be seen for the first time

They are linear sketches of figures and heads that anticipate the airy volumes of later wire figures. The fact that these are actually sketches of ideas for sculptures is confirmed not only by the captions “En fil de fer” (made of wire), but also by passages from the prison diaries in which Uhlmann imagines and describes their sculptural implementation and suffers from the limited possibilities for execution.

Released from prison, Uhlmann actually produced several elaborately designed graphic folders for wire figures, but also sculptures, most of which are now destroyed and only documented by photos. Only an elaborate drawing of a wire head from 1934 has survived, which is a touching testimony to artistic creativity in captivity. This already shows Uhlmann’s constructive-mathematical basic understanding, which also underlies his iconic head made of iron wire from 1935 from the New National Gallery, which was last seen in the exhibition “The Black Years” in the Hamburger Bahnhof.

Uhlmann’s sculptures are present in public space

The renewed interest in the artists of the “inner emigration”, which is currently also reflected in the exhibition “Art for Nobody. 1933-1945” at the Schirn in Frankfurt brings to mind Hans Uhlmann, an artist with integrity and a singular personality, who has faded somewhat into the background as an important sculptor of post-war modernism.

Although he received great recognition after the end of the war, was appointed to the West Berlin Art Academy in 1950 and was invited to the first three Documenta exhibitions in Kassel in 1955, 1959 and 1964 and to the Venice Biennale in 1964 and is present in public space with numerous large-scale sculptures, the work is still attached von Uhlmann issued a verdict of delay to this day. In contrast, the curator Dorothea Schöne undertakes the courageous and daring attempt to present his graphic work in a new, reflective exhibition architecture designed by the Berlin-based artist Albert Weis.

Uhlmann’s artistic development becomes comprehensible

For this he was able to draw on his multi-part, architectural-spatial installation “Changes” (2018/2022), which incorporates typical elements from the floor plan of the Berlin Philharmonie, the ridge of which bears one of Hans Uhlmann’s best-known works (Kunsthaus Dahlem, Käuzchensteig 8, until June 19; Wed to Mon 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Uhlmann’s diaries have been published by Hatje Cantz, €28).

The zigzag of the reflecting walls not only multiplies the spatial references, but also the prismatic folds and refractions of the drawings. The blurred mirror effects pose a challenge, but they open up a concentrated and fresh look at Uhlmann’s artistic development: from the linear drawings of the 1930s to the semi-figurative sheets of the 1940s with their groups of figures and stage-like ensembles to the geometric abstractions the 1950s, in which Picasso’s influence can still be clearly seen at first.

A plaster group from 1945, two wire sculptures from 1948 and a steel sculpture from 1963 are examples of the sculptural work in dialogue with the works on paper, most of which come from the Rolf and Bettina Horn collection. The fact that Hans Uhlmann is now being given new honors in the Kunsthaus Dahlem, the former studio of Hitler’s favorite sculptor Arno Breker, is a special point. And as a belated tribute to an upright, suppressed and still underestimated artist.

By Editor

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