The Swiss sculptor Hans Josephsohn (1920–2012) was concerned with representing the human being as a figure in space throughout his life. His work focused on few basic shapes representing the human figure, the classical theme of sculpture: a head, a half figure, standing, lying. Formed out of plaster, they are then cast in brass. They are characterised by an ambivalence of the almost abstract figure whose individuality is secured by its form, material and surface.
The stringent evolvement of his oeuvre starts with geometrically reduced sculptures, leading into a more figurative phase and culminating in his typical stylistic idiom, which is characterized by precisely shaped volumes with only coarsely worked surfaces. The sculptor worked largely from models, always seeking the perfect balance for each work between figuration and abstraction. Some of his early works are like slender stelae, while others deliver more accurate reflections of the facial features and postures of their models. Josephsohn’s early sculptures reveal a dialogue with the art and architecture of Egyptian, Assyrian and classical Greek antiquity, whilst the mysterious half-figures that he has made from the 1980s until the present day seem to belong to pre-history.
Yet for Josephsohn, naturalistic portrayal was not important. In some pieces such as Josephsohn’s late half figures which are powerful and monumental works, the bodily forms can only be intuited. In his reliefs as well, which depict the dynamic of human relationships and conflicts, he also dispensed with detailed portrayals. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons why the tension between the figures with their rough bronze surfaces is literally tangible.
And yet he strived to convey human existence using the tools of his trade. A search for the right shape determined his work, with plaster being his preferred material. With plaster, that “soft stone,” he was in a position to revise his works repeatedly and, by adding and removing material, to develop them. Nevertheless it was these relationships that provided him with the impetus to constantly review his work and continue to develop it. For Josephsohn a surface that was sometimes rough was a result of the process of searching for the right shape and thus a necessary element in his sculptures. Running through all of Josephsohn’s works is an insistent corporality, an acceptance of the irrefutable heaviness and materiality of the human body. For him there is no spiritual possibility and therefore no truth outside the human body, which must bear all of life’s injuries. Josephsohn's unique style is wholly committed to modernity, yet without renouncing tradition. Until his death in Zurich in 2012 Josephsohn shunned the contemporary art scene, creating an oeuvre of impressive coherence.
Image: Untitled, 1972, © Kesselhaus Josephsohn, St. Gallen
Selected Institutional Exhibitions
on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin as part of the collection display