Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Art: Sensuous sadness of Hans Josephsohn's sculpture

Since his death in August 2012, Hans Josephsohn's reputation as an artist has continued to grow, and with his latest exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, his legacy as one of Switzerland’s most important modern sculptors will surely be cemented.

Born in the East Prussian town of Königsberg in 1920, Josephsohn was an unusual artist who dedicated his career to producing intimate sculptures of people who he loved and cared about.

Josephsohn left home at the age of 17 to study art in Florence. This would be the last time he ever saw his family, who ended their lives in the Nazi death camps, a fate which inevitably had a profound effect on his work.

Hans Josephsohn (1920-2012)

Clare Lilley, head curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, explains: “His work is very sensuous and there’s an incredible intimacy in the work. But there is also an inherent sadness. For me, even before I knew anything about him, I saw this melancholy – if it touches you, it absolutely touches you.”

It was this profound loss that also affected how Josephsohn worked on a day-to-day basis, and the way he interacted with other artists. Ulrich Meinhertz, the head curator at Kesselhaus, a museum in Zurich dedicated to Josephsohn’s life and work explains: “Josephsohn was only interested in his own work. He did not look around at the art world. He would look at his own early pieces and try to solve their problems. So we get a series of more or less similar pieces on the same subject with slight differences. In the exhibition, you will see a row of seven big busts which at first view seem quite similar, but then when you look closely, you will see how he was finding new solutions for similar problems.”

Though Josephsohn is fast becoming regarded as an incredibly important artist, he only
Clare agrees, emphasising Josephsohn’s unique position in the art world: “He never worked with anyone else, which is very unusual for a sculptor. In one sense he was a bit insular, but in another it meant that he wasn’t prey to fashion. He would do his time in the studio every day and then go home – he was incredibly disciplined.”

He started to see success in the last decade of his life. “In his own country, he had very little success,” says Ulrich. “He was well known in the inner-circle of the art world, but he was not very successful in a commercial sense. Sometimes he couldn’t afford to cast his work, and he didn’t sell many of his pieces. He was very happy when people began to recognize his work at the end of his life.”

But Josephsohn did not measure success in terms of financial gain. “For him, it was important to do the pieces and have the opportunity to show them, and obviously to sell them,” says Ulrich. “But not because of the money, because a buyer will exhibit the piece elsewhere. He was very proud that he had found this success.”

Ulrich and Clare are both pleased they are able to exhibit Josephsohn’s work in the open air. “I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to put Josephsohn’s work in the formal gardens,” says Clare. “And I also knew that I didn’t want it to be a large indoor show. One of the reasons that I wanted to show him outdoors was because of the relationship between his work, the architecture of the formal terrace and the soft nature of the garden below.”

Josephsohn opens on May 11. The works in the Bothy Gallery are on show until November 3, and those in the gardens until January 5 next year.

This article was originally published in the Yorkshire Post.

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