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The painter Christian Hess
by Hans Eckstein

from the Catalogue: Christian Hess - Palermo 1974

The 20's for young artists in Munich were by no means as rosy as was generally described in accounts of the times. The city, although owning a rich artistic tradition, was not particularly open towards avant-garde ideas, to new forms of expression whether in painting, sculpture or architecture.
The established, long-standing artistic groups were not keen to grant exhibition space to new young talent. Nor could the new wave expect much help from municipal or state arts bodies. So a small but enthusiastic band of young artists joined together in the movement they named Juryfreie with a founding charter based on mutual friendship and firm opposition to the entrenched power of the artistic establishment. Without doubt they saw themselves as revolutionaries; and they were. At the start of the 1930's anyone interested in meeting these new young artists and getting to know their work could go to the exhibition rooms the "Juryfreien" had set up on the corner of Prinzregenstrasse opposite the Prinz Carl Palace. Here visitors could see not only paintings by Juryfreie members but also work by artists which established galleries (both state-owned and private) still refused to show. Abstract and surrealist artists like Albers, Arp, Baumeister, Brancusi, Max Ernst, Mondrian, Picasso and Schwitters to name just a few were exhibited for the first time in Munich thanks to the Juryfreie. The group also featured work by modern architects whose designs would otherwise have been ignored. The movement also organised concerts of contemporary music featuring the work of composers like Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Milhaud among others. Sales of paintings at the exhibitions did not even cover expenses so the group organised carnival parties as a way of raising funds. The Juryfreie parties soon became famous in a city of inveterate partygoers.

But the fun soon came to an end with the arrival of Hitler and his brown-shirted national socialists. They would decide what was art and what wasn't. The banning of the Juryfreie movement was part of a broader cultural attack aimed at destroying "Bolshevik" cultural organisations. Juryfreie members could now only paint, sculpt and make architectural designs in hiding. If I have described the situation in which young artists in Munich found themselves around 1930 and given an outline of the Juryfreie's activities, it is because it was at this time and in this situation that the painter Christian Hess was living in the Bavarian capital. I first saw his paintings at a Juryfreie exhibition. It was at one of the group's parties that I first met Hess. He was around 35 with sharp features and a pleasant, intelligent expression. He was not very tall, slim and seemed to possess a typically Bavarian temperament - but the almost impertinent openness clearly concealed a deep sensitivity. I remember at one exhibition on Prinzregenstrasse I was looking at some paintings by Joseph Scharl (similar to Van Gogh) but I was far more struck by the quiet serene canvasses by Christian Hess which had been hung alongside. Of all the paintings which I viewed during that period in Munich those by Hess are without doubt the ones of which I maintain the clearest memory.
So, when I recently visited Messina and saw the meticulously curated retrospective of Hess' paintings, I was able to make my acquaintance once again with many of his works. There was in no way the sense of disappointment that sometimes occurs when after decades you meet an old friend - or an old painting - on the contrary. Many of the later paintings which I was seeing for the first time served only to strengthen my previous impressions. The promise shown by the artist in his early thirties had been richly fulfilled in his later works. I could not have known this in 1948 when at a vast exhibition in Munich I saw again two of Hess' paintings which clearly stood out from the majority of the works on show for their sheer expressive power. But by that time, when artists in Germany were once again able to paint and exhibit their work, Hess was already dead. He did not have an easy life; perhaps he had not sought it. Although he did everything well: painting, drawing, carving puppets, playfully sculpting figures in the sands on the Baltic coast and modelling with such hard work and diligence in his studio. He was by no means without self-criticism and he took his artistic activity far more seriously than might have seemed to an outsider.
He left the gymnasium early and enrolled in the Innsbruck State arts and crafts institute where he began painting. Later he had to work
at the Mader art glass studios in Innsbruck and at the Kuntner ceramic workshop in Brunico before he was able to begin studying at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich in 1919. Even after he had completed his studies under Becker Gundhal, Hess had to keep busy in the search to make some money. In a jeweller in Pforzheim he found not a patron but a source of commissions for copies of old masters displayed in museums in Vienna and Florence. Although this activity hardly served to meet his longing for artistic affirmation, it is possible to maintain that it did help to develop and refine his innate sense of colour, shade and tone. In any case, copying did not lead Hess, as it did Lenbach, to old-style mannerism. He learned from the old masters but he reserved the right to find his own way of expressing form and colour which he found in nature. In the beginning much of Hess' painting is clearly influenced by the Munich school. His unflagging enthusiasm for drawing and painting from nature allowed him to move beyond and find new freedoms. Above all his long stays in Italy and the summer he spent in Sicily at his sister's - who had married and settled in Messina - helped him enormously in the search for an artistic language in which he could achieve greater self-expression. In many paintings from 1927 and 1928 there is a growing sense of colour and an increased precision of form.  The statue of Neptune at Messina, a highly expressive work by a classicist sculptor, provided the impulse for a majestic composition in which the real is developed to almost mythical-allegorical proportions and offers an element of magical romanticism which in some respects may remind viewers of De Chirico. Sometimes one may observe a tendency to overcome form to reach a more expressive perspective, as in the painting “Ponte di Bracciano” and in the superbly modelled "Reclining Torso". A group of houses becomes an abstract composition of red and black cubes. Emotions found in the paintings of Cezanne are elaborated on in still lifes of beautiful lyrical reality. In the landscapes the graduation of colours and tones is majestic. Towards 1930 the nudes - in drawings and paintings - become more animated and in the same period there are also still lifes of clearly abstract construction. For all those who decades ago saw only a few individual paintings by Christian Hess this exhibition which brings together his oil paintings and drawings - unfortunately examples of his plastic art have almost completely disappeared - offers a first look at the development of this richly talented artist. All the other artists are present with one work, allowing us to place Christian Hess clearly among the most interesting talents to have come out of the rich traditions of the Munich school in the period between the two wars and follow new directions.

Hans Eckstein