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Hans Josephsohn

In Search of Josephsohn 

by Michael Storrs
photography | Anton Sucksdorff

We were recently privileged to have a private view of the works of the late Swiss sculptor Hans Josephsohn at the Kesselhaus Josephsohn in St. Gallen Switzerland before they left for a major retrospective exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

When you enter the Kesselhaus you step into an amazing luminous space in which you are completely surrounded by Josephsohn's life’s work, making an unforgettable impression, inspiring a sense of wonderment and humility. In part this is due to the vaulting height of the old dyeing works where his sculpture is exhibited and stored, but mainly emanates from the sheer monumental scale and innate raw energy of the sculpture, combined with an overwhelming feeling of stillness and timelessness that fills the air. One senses too the heartbeat of humanity in his work. The surfaces of his sculptures have a strong sense of plasticity, almost a painterly quality and an aliveness which draws you in, rather like looking at a painting by Rothko.

In a fascinating documentary by Matthias Kälin and Laurin Merz, filmed in Josephsohn’s mid-eighties, he is pictured clambering around on a box bashing at one of his enormous plaster heads with an axe. He alludes to the fact that in his long life of making art, which involved so much hard physical grind, there are purely intuitive moments when the work takes over and goes wherever it goes. Looking at his work in the Kesselhaus it is possible to sense this and also to feel one is being transported to a different place.


Hans Josephsohn was born in 1920 in Königsberg, East Prussia, the oldest son of non-orthodox Jewish parents. During his early teens he experienced the shocking rise of the Nazi party; comfortable bourgeois family life gradually collapsed and his family was forced to move to smaller accommodation with signs on windows of the nearby shops saying “JEWS OUT.”

At school, where he had considered himself a typical young Prussian, he was shunned by classmates he thought were close friends and treated with hostility by his teachers even though he had been an avid student of Prussian history. In common with many Jewish families at this time his father was arrested and detained, although later released. At the age of seventeen, further education being closed to a Jew, he decided that he would make his way to Florence, enroll in art school, which at that time was free, and if possible become a sculptor. As he boarded the train to make this journey he did not realise that this would be the last time he said goodbye to his mother and father who died some years later in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt.


This 1937 Italian trip was to be brief, and Josephsohn saw it as a time when he was not able to take in very much, although it is clear from later comments that the Italian Renaissance and Etruscan antiquities made an enormous impression on him as did the work of Michelangelo which he had previously studied in books. The experience he most enjoyed was spending three summer months in the small Apennine village of Loro Ciuffenna at the invitation of a fellow student, Venturino Venturi. Here he did no work but was able to make friends and simply enjoy life. This period, and Italy, was to remain an important part of his world for the rest of his life and after the war he made regular trips south. But when Mussolini introduced anti-Jewish legislation he had to flee Italy, reaching the Swiss border just before it closed thereby saving his life. 


On arrival in Switzerland he was sent to an internment labour camp, but a few months later while being transferred he managed to slip off the train as it passed through Zürich. He was given a small monthly handout by the local Jewish community, and in the summer of 1939 he got an introduction to the studio of the Swiss sculptor Otto Müller. For the next four and a half years he studied and worked with Müller whilst also learning drawing with Max Gubler and Robert Müller - although he says that he never felt comfortable drawing but rather developed his own style of sketching ideas for sculpture. In the documentary he proudly recollects the day that Otto Müller said to him that he definitely was a sculptor. This he says with his usual humility but it is obvious that, even years later, this endorsement really mattered to him. 


From today's vantage point Josephsohn's story seems extraordinary. Contemporary artists operate under enormous pressure and the assumption is made that they should develop quickly, find or invent new ways of doing everything and achieve relatively fast success in both a critical and material sense. This pressure is compounded by the instant availability of information on the internet! But for Josephsohn there was no huge sense of urgency, partly because it was illegal for him to earn a living at this time, which left him free to grow and develop slowly. However, he did mention that the fact that his life was spared and that he survived such a turbulent period in history gave him drive and a strong sense of direction.  Until relatively late in life he didn’t have a commercial gallery representing him which freed him to develop at his own pace. Neither was he living in one of the hothouse centres of art making such as Paris or New York with collectors knocking on door in search of the latest thing.


It is hard for us to understand how it is possible that Josephsohn was able to work away all those years at his own pace with relatively few people buying his work, and yet that’s what he succeeded in doing. Of course at that time this was the norm and many other artists developed in the same way. Josephsohn explains that in a way his work became his family, living in the world of sculpture. Viewing the videos of him at work, much of the time outside in his yard in all weathers, one is mesmerized by the sight of this short powerful man surrounded by a family of plaster figures. Some are huge - the big heads and reclining figures, and the reliefs that look out from under the protection of temporary metal covers.


It is interesting to reflect that for many years he couldn't afford to cast some of these larger works and some reclining figures were only cast thirty years after their completion. A friend recalled that he was given a piece of work in plaster form but had himself to pay for the casting because Josephsohn couldn't afford to do this.

There is no doubt that his nature was to go his own way; he was stubborn and probably had what would now be called fairly strong ‘trust issues’ given his early teenage nightmares. Although, the impression given by some commentators that he was a loner who kept himself completely isolated is misleading and gives far too simplistic a picture. He seems to have been a very positive and open person which is extraordinary given his history. It would have been so easy for him to become a recluse, keeping his past in a closed box along with a lot of anger. Nonetheless, this was definitely not his character. He also had a strong sense of humour which is recorded in another short documentary where he tells the cameraman to stop filming and come and help him stop a sculpture he’s constructing from collapsing.

In contrast to the austerity and discipline of his working life, at home he always had female companions. He had two wives and a son by his first marriage and family was an important part of his world. However, his dedication to his art and the grueling hard work that that entailed remain extraordinary.


Like many artists his practice was to work on several sculptures at once, moving between them developing ideas and solving problems as he went along. He used a notation style of drawing showing angles and content in rough form. In the early days he worked with clay and the small reliefs from this period show a very liquid painterly way of working, but he got frustrated by the drying time involved and quickly developed a preference for plaster which he could either build up or cut into depending on his intentions. He did though continue to use clay for smaller works.


When one examines the chronology of his long working life, it is interesting to note that Josephsohn kept moving back and forth between abstraction and a more figurative style. His reliefs were to him just as important as his later larger half figures or the reclining figures. Indeed when you look at these works closely they reveal more of his private world and if very closely examined show various situations he encountered or imagined. They were his way of telling a story. The reliefs also clearly show his sense of proportion and his wider interest in context and architecture. He referred to the large overhangs at the top of some of reliefs as ‘beams.’ Clearly his early interest in Medieval, Romanesque and Egyptian art informs this tendency. Shortly after the war ended he traveled to London for the first time and there he recalled the strong impression that the Assyrian Reliefs at the British Museum made on him.


He also shows a keen sense of line and like all great sculptors works to find the right scale and reach of the work, frequently changing the position of the figures or reexamining the volume and projection adding here or removing there.


His working method was consistent and repeated on a daily basis his whole life. Each day he left his modest apartment and took the bus to his studio. There he would sit in a chair dressed in his everyday clothes and read the paper and smoke his Dannemann cigars. Apparently, he would stick paper over the health warning on the box and later use it to sketch ideas. He followed the news and tried to make sense of what was going on and he also reflected upon what had happened during the war. As part of this interest in the war he collected stamps from the Nazi era, not so much because he liked stamps, but rather because by looking at the number of stamps issued he could see the effect of rapid inflation during that period. He also kept up with political events.


Around midday he would change into his plaster-covered working clothes and set to work, keeping a number of works in play and moving between them. The videos of him working give a very clear picture of his methods ... adding and subtracting, making endless buckets of plaster, building up the surface and standing back to survey his progress. He had great difficulty deciding when a work was finished. Sometimes it took as long as two years, and he would call on individual trusted friends to ask their advice.

In the seventies, Josephsohn allowed the young Swiss architect Peter Märkli to come into his studio and this was the start of a close lifelong friendship. Märkli has amusing memories of the ignorance and arrogance of a twenty-two-year-old who on first meeting the great sculpture remembers telling him - “no one would want to buy this sort of work!” Over the years Markli helped him in the studio and he recalls "as he worked we talked about all sorts of things, girls, politics as well as his favourite art in Italy". Märkli later came up with the outlandish idea that he should make a special museum dedicated to Josephsohn’s work. After many struggles and with very little money the project finally came to fruition in 1992 in La Congiunta, which is in the Swiss canton of Ticino on the way to Italy. 


This long and narrow building, on the edge of the small village, houses reliefs and three large figures. The innovative way in which Märkli lets in the natural light from way overhead gives the space a warm glow. Most of the work here was cast at his previous foundry and is made from bronze. The effect of the whole space again underlines the stillness and time-stopping nature of this powerful work, which is almost heightened by the stark contrast to the express trains that shoot along embankment located just above the museum, rushing south towards Italy. Driving back to Zürich at sunrise the next morning it was hard not to see Josphsohn’s all around in the silhouette formed in the craggy shape of the mountain tops all around us.


It is interesting to reflect that Hans Josephsohn did not want to be labeled as a Jewish artist but rather as a sculptor. It wasn’t that he was in denial about his heritage; he just didn’t want his work to have to carry the baggage of other people’s layering of his intent. He simply wanted it to stand and be judged as it is.

It does seem to me, however, that there are similarities between Josephsohn and the other major Jewish émigré Lucien Freud. Both worked away for years focused on their own work, out of step with fashion, and they also placed a great emphasis on the surface of their figures.


Josephsohn in the early nineties was approached by the young foundry owner Felix Lehner, who had established a Sculpture Works [Sitterwerk] in the old textile dyeing plant at Sittertal in St. Gallen. Over a period of time Lehner has built up an impressive centre for the arts. Its core is the Kesselhaus Josephsohn situated next to the large foundry, currently employing fifty craftspersons and producing work for many important contemporary artists including Paul McCarthy and Fischli and Weiss, as well as continuing to cast Josephsohns work in Brass. It took him a long time to persuade Josephsohn that this move would work, and it is not difficult to understand that for an elderly artist this must have been a very difficult decision.


Within this group of buildings there is a remarkable reference library of art books and also an important archive of the material used for all aspects of making sculpture. In addition there is an ongoing programme of residencies for sculptors who are invited to come to work for a period of time and tap into all these impressive resources. The Kesselhaus Josephsohn also acts as a gallery selling his works in order to maintain and promote his work.


From this base with Josephsohn's extraordinary archive and work at its core there is a dynamic programme represented by the major International gallery Hauser & Wirth who are steadily bringing the work of this great artist to its rightful position on the world stage.


This article first appeared in the Rite of Spring issue of Auditorium | May 2013 

 photographed exclusively for ©Audiorium by Anton Sucksdorff

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