The light drew Hans Hartung and Eva Bergman to France’s Côte d’Azur. To understand it, go to their former home in Antibes, a white modernist complex built for the two married painters in the 1960s. You will see what they saw. The air is crisp in the morning, tinged light blue like the sky. The colours are brilliant by midday, blinding. Then the palette thickens, enriched by yellow tones as the hours go on. And if you stand on the platform of stone that hosts the blue square of the swimming pool, that looks out past the olive grove and the studio buildings, beyond the terracotta roofs and cypress trees, you will see the light in all its colours refracting on the sea.
“When lights and colours come together, when they blur, naturally we are drawn to it,” says Thomas Schlesser, director of the Hartung Bergman Foundation, a space newly opened to the public that is based in their former home. “The blur suggests a distance that you want to close; it forces you to pause, and interpret.” Though he might just as easily be speaking of the view, Schlesser is talking of Hartung and Bergman’s work.
Hartung was the most famous of the two, gaining a reputation in his lifetime for his abstract works. His painting was influenced by the Bauhaus mode, as well as Cubism – the latter style saw him thrown out of Nazi Germany for its liberal associations during the Second World War. His work from the 1950s onward was categorised as Tachisme, or Lyrical Abstraction, a European counterpoint to the Abstract Expressionists of New York. “Through the 1960s, both Hartung and Mark Rothko were concerned with the blur,” says Schlesser. The two corresponded, he says, and had “deep mutual respect.”
Bergman endured the struggles of a woman artist in her time. “She did not receive much recognition,” Schlesser says of Hartung’s wife. But the two painters learned from one another. Her pieces, too, were abstract, lyrical, and played on light. Metallic foil in silver and gold is common in her work, catching and reflecting the colours around. She would photograph the landscape of the region and reduce it to its basic forms in painterly compositions, a technique her husband shared. In her paintings, a rock becomes a circle, a crevice a parabola, a cliff face a square.
Their home leaves traces of their story. The swimming pool suggests Hartung’s love of fitness; it also suggests a remedy to his lack of exercise after losing one of his legs fighting with the French foreign legion. Hartung and Bergman’s separate studios suggest different methods: while Hartung worked often under a neon glow through the night, Bergman preferred daylight. And the fact of the house’s existence is an ode to the pair’s final coming together. The two painters were married young but divorced in 1939, due to health complications and the War. They drew up plans for the home jointly, finally tasking an architect to execute them after they reunited and remarried in 1957.
But understanding how the couple lived requires some guesswork. There are gaps in our knowledge. We can imagine them peering out at the sea; diving into the pool; working restlessly from their studios. The foundation encourages this. But still the outline is slight, a ghost of their lives. It is for us to interpret. This makes it richer. It is as if we are looking at a landscape, but see only a faint blur.