Hans Purrmann

A recent addition to Hirmer’s Great Masters of Art series is a short book on German Modernist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966). Purrmann was born in Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate. He was trained in decorative art and took courses at the Applied Arts School, Karlsruhe, before going to study painting at Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (1897-1905). All of this gave him great craft skills and sensitivity towards colour. He had an affinity for Munich Impressionism. Park in Svinar (1903) is close to Max Liebermann’s Impressionism and Seated Nude (“Polish Equestrienne”) (1905) follows Lovis Corinth’s expressive diagonal brushwork and lush painterliness. The former is a dazzling tour de force depiction of shadow and dappling sunlight effects. Painting as pleasure-giving is never far from Purrmann’s thinking. Purrmann also respected Max Slevogt.

While in Munich, Purrmann developed an admiration for Cézanne. He immersed himself in the power of colour and the cultivation of facture, as means to vitalise painting. He moved to Paris in 1905 and the following year commenced studying in the studio of Henri Matisse. The master proved a major influence; so much so, that Purrmann is often called “the German Matisse”. It did not help Purrmann’s standing as an independent painter the fact that he vigorously promoted Matisse’s paintings in Germany. His combination of bluish greens and viridian – and his preference for blocks of unmodulated, unshaded colour – was developed at this time.

Purrmann could be classed as a late-period Fauve. His paintings from 1905 onwards share characteristics with those of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, as well as Matisse. The energy of Purrmann’s early Fauve paintings is akin to Vlaminck’s. The hot-coloured landscapes are a blend of Derain and Cézanne.

The painter admitted that he painted that which he enjoyed looking at and being around – sunny gardens, interiors of his handsome home, family members, nude models. Purrmann’s sumptuous interiors – juxtaposing reds and oranges against saturated greens and blue – of 1917-8 display his feeling for colour. The richness of the colour, restrained brushwork and deft use of detailing in compositions that exaggerate forms and spaces without reaching levels of unreality are highly satisfying and typical of Purrmann. That also demonstrates Purrmann’s weakness in comparison to Matisse. He is too restrained and too genteel to take up the risks that Matisse undertook. His art is gorgeous but genteel; it is the gentility of a consummate craftsman rather than the rawness and risk of genius.

Interestingly, Purrmann’s art was classed as degenerate by the Nazis and included in the 1937 exhibition. The content of his art was unobjectionable, had it been painted in a realist or mild Impressionist manner, but his style was tied to the unapologetic Modernism. This led to him being perceived as belonging to a subversive group (or tendency). The author admits he cannot explain how this condemned artist came to be appointed director of Villa Romana, Florence, a German-owned villa used for artist residencies. Purmann held the position from 1935 until 1943, the breakdown of the Fascist government during the pressure of Allied invasion and German occupation. (That summer his wife died in Munich after a long illness.) In 1939, the “Italian branch of the Nazi Party” wrote to the German Embassy in Rome, calling Purrmann a “proponent of an altogether un-German concept of art”. Purrmann was known to have assisted dissident artists and writers during his time there.

Purrmann’s painting during his years in Florence feature the villa and display the artist’s appreciation for his surroundings. The views of rooms, including glimpses of the garden and trees beyond the balcony, recall Matisse’s Nice and Cannes paintings. After the war, Purrmann settled in Lugano, Switzerland. His studio had a spectacular mountain view. His art did not develop much in later years; it did not need to. He continued painting after 1959, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. His dedication to pleasure was richly rewarded in his last decades by increasing acclaim and financial security. In 1955, his art was selected for the first Documenta exhibition in Cassel, chosen in part by the German curators because Purrmann was seen as untainted by Naziism, Modernist in character and representative of the taste and artists of France. Purrmann was, for Germans burdened by war-guilt, an embodiment of “the good German artist”: cosmopolitan in outlook and association.

Purrmann’s painting is definitely worth becoming acquainted with, especially if one is a fan of the Fauves or early Matisse. It is highly accomplished and enjoyable. Wagner’s book is the perfect introduction. The book contains a general essay, a thorough chronology and a handful of documents from Purrmann, alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are well chosen and large enough. Recommended for all fans of Matisse, Modernist painting and German art.

Christoph Wagner, Hans Purrmann, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 80pp, 55 col. illus., £9.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3679 1

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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