A Lucca Exhibition Reveals the Many Lives of European Artist Otto Hofmann


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The Ragghianti Foundation in Lucca displays Otto Hofmann’s works following a long-awaited return to Italy for the first time in 15 years. The exhibition Artista Europeo: Dal Bauhaus all’Italia (A European Artist from the Bauhaus to Italy) traces his artistic evolution from a student of Klee and Kandinsky to his embrace of abstractionism in rural Liguria. Through July 14. Open 10 am – 7 pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Admission €5. 

Otto Hofmann (b. 1907, Essen) led an unimaginable life that was characterised above all by his resilience and unyielding pursuit of artistic expression. The collection is located in the Complesso monumentale di San Micheletto rooms at the museum. The retrospective provides an opportunity to both experience Bauhaus art and an abstractionist collection emerging from a life of tumult, this show is of utmost interest. 

Visitors are transported through the remarkable chapters of Hofmann’s life, his formative years at the Bauhaus, under the instruction of renowned artists including Klee and Kandinskij through Nazi occupation and conscription to Russia where he was held prisoner for many years. The Bauhaus style can be characterised as a movement that aimed to unify all forms of art and which favours simplistic designs that are characterised by angularity, geometric shapes and little ornamentation, so as to lend itself well to mass production and function. Icons of the style include Walter Gropius (founder of the style), Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy and Lyonel Feininger, to name a few.

The exhibition also follows Hofmann’s experience in the postwar years and time in Europe and collates 126 works, including many previously unseen pieces. Curated by Paolo Bolpagni and Giovanni Battista Martini, this show marks the first Hofmann exhibition in Italy in the past 15 years, the country that Hofmann eventually chose as a final resting place. 

Having graduated from architectural studies and then the Bauhaus in 1931, Hofmann was in a unique position to commence his experimental and ever-evolving art career. The early 1930s for the artist would include rubbing shoulders with artists, such as Jean Arp, around Europe and his first solo art exhibitions, notably ‘Nacht Collagen’ which combined Dada and Bauhaus influences. It is these early works in addition to notes from his university classes and hand-written correspondences that welcome you into the collection. 

Hofmann’s experience of the 1930s would be marked by the growing censorship of the Nazi regime in Germany, where his art was now considered ‘degenerate’, and where his wife, Hanna Stirnemann, was now at risk of being exposed as a Jewish woman. He began working for the State Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin and by 1938 Hofmann was working with Otto Lindig, whom he met at university, in a ceramics atelier until the beginning of the war. There are multiple of the artist’s quaint ceramic pieces, intricately decorated with fine blue painting, on display at the exhibition. 

Hofmann was reluctantly enlisted in the Wehrmacht and was eventually sent to Russia where he was captured and remained a prisoner for six years. To prevent himself from falling into madness during this time, Hofmann found solace in creating small-scale watercolour paintings, reimagining his surroundings in striking colours, and poignantly contrasting his bleak reality. Visitors can see works such as the ‘Explosion’ which, whilst small in size, is large in impact, the simplistic shapes organised in a way which captures the violent movement of the eruption. Similarly, there are pieces that illustrate the Russian cityscape, with the typical onion domes and obscured skies of deep indigo. We find these pieces mounted on touching letters to the artist’s wife and artist friends back in Europe. Upon the opposite wall hangs a striking collection of photos from the Russian frontlines, which whilst in black and white, are equally as vivid in their depiction of the circumstances. These scenes of desolate landscapes and of soldiers and horses struck to the ground are also displayed on a greater scale by a projection onto the wall. 

Upon his liberation in 1946, Hofmann emerged from the war and together with his wife, he embarked on a mission to safeguard the architectural treasures of the Rudolstadt region, while also delving into new artistic mediums such as lithography and xylography. Four years later, Hofmann moved to West Germany escaping the communist regime taking over East Germany, having to abandon his possessions and almost all of his works. Artists there were now required to embrace a subservient realism of Soviet observance and abstractionist or avant-garde work was accused of being an expression of the empty and debauched ‘bourgeois form’. Refusing to acquiesce to such demands and oppressive censorship, Hofmann instead created daring pieces. A piece from 1948, ‘Ohne Titel’ (untitled, as most of his works are), whilst monochromatic, demonstrates an ability to create interest solely with unexpected angular shapes, nonsensical balancing of different shapes and various lines that appear to portray mountain tops and crescent moons. 

This relocation, which followed an already turbulent series of life events, provided yet more stimulation for artwork. Between 1950 and 1952, Hofmann endeavoured to create what was almost an entirely separate corpus of work on paper, watercolour, charcoal and pastels. It is thought that this new artistic tone of ofttime dark, sharp and imperious signs intermingled with floating ovoid ‘monads’, is reminiscent of the Russian countryside of Dacha. One in particular displays a captivating arrangement of linear patterns set against a backdrop of taupe and closely bordered by a pool of light blue. As the 1950s progressed, the works transcended their earlier sombre tone and evolved towards gentler lines and brighter washes of blue, red and orange.

Moving to Pompeiana, Liguria, in 1976, prompted Hofmann to create works that represented less oscillation between naturalism and the abstract. Instead, he embraced an almost entirely aniconic style of painting which was also of a more cheerful nature, reflecting the luminosity of the Ligurian landscape. Whilst his earlier works often bore the explicit influence of Klee and Kandinskij, Hofmann reached a point where he no longer felt the need to prove his originality. His admiration of the pair no longer dictated his work; and their guidance whilst deeply internalised, acted in the most hidden layers of his imagination, cementing his reputation as an artist with a great ability to iterate and innovate, embracing his own motifs, including most noticeably, ladders and crescent moons in optimistic shades. 

Hofmann’s marriage to Marianne Oswald in 1963 ushered in 20 years of tranquillity in Pompeiana, Liguria, before he passed away at age 89 in 1996. Marianne revealed that Otto enjoyed a quiet life during that period in the countryside, wanting nothing more than to be surrounded by artichoke farms and serenity. As visitors to his exhibition will discover, Otto Hofmann’s legacy transcends the confines of any single artistic movement or ideology. Instead, it is a testament to the unbreakable spirit of an artist who dared to defy convention and embrace change. His diverse body of work, spanning various media and styles, reflects the constant turbulence and variation of his life’s chapters and his unwithering determination to create art.  (Lucy Turner)