After the Second World War and in part right on into the 1960s, the visual arts were marked by a wealth of more or less expressive forms of abstraction. The question about its authorship, which was frequently raised in this context, dwindles behind the fact that this was a phenomenon that sprouted more or less simultaneously in several locations. The zeitgeist was aptly caught in the contemporary notion of "abstraction as a universal language", which was valid at least for Western culture.
There can be no doubt that major impulses came from the USA, where Pollock's canvases -which were spread out on the floor during their genesis as the arena for dripping and pouring paint - amounted to a revolution in painting and laid the foundations of Action Painting. But likewise in Europe, particularly in France and with some delay in Germany, there was fruitful ground in the late 1940s and early 1950s for all the varieties of markedly expressive abstraction. With names such as Tachisme, Lyrical abstraction or Informel, these forms of non-objective painting presented basically kindred approaches, even if the tenor of the visual expression was notably individualistic.
Hans Hartung, T56-21, 1956, oil on canvas, 180 x 114 cm, Museum Ludwig 1976, acquired with the support of the State of NRW description of the image
In particular two artists of German origin, Hans Hartung and Wols, who already emigrated in the 1930s to Paris to escape the Fascist terror, created images that helped set the direction for a European abstraction with roots in Existentialism. Indicative of the acceptance of this kind of visual language, which first came to be shown in the artistic climate of the post-war period, is the recognition and exposure that Hans Hartung - as one of the principle protagonists of the École de Paris - received in the 1950s with his lyrically expressive works. Even today, Hartung's works from the 1920s and 1930s, which show that he was working with gestural abstraction long before the birth of this movement, are frequently overlooked because they seem anachronistic and break with the accepted scheme of historical styles. But in post-war Europe, Hartung with his highly expressive and harmonious use of signs seemingly born from spontaneous creative intuitions, became the personification of the artist à la Existentialism.
The wish for primal and immediate forms of visual expression, far removed from a notion of culture that had become covered by a hard crust of civilisation, led Jean Dubuffet to search in 1940s Paris for new sources of inspiration. The art of the mentally ill, children's drawings and artistic artefacts from "primitive" peoples, as well as chance structures as, for instance, in the crumbling plaster on a house front - in all this he discovered the potential for an art that touched the very roots of human existence. Dubuffet saw this as the chance to arrive at new realms of artistic imagery and to expand the range of potential materials. His aspirations came to fruition in Art Brut, which presented a forum for fresh and unjaded creative expression of every kind, at least as long as they fitted the criteria of the self-elected master. The imagery in this art aspired to radical renewal and to the abandonment of a middle-class aesthetic that had been all but disqualified by the catastrophe of the Second World War. It remained however bound to an elementary representationalism.
Similar goals were pursued by the artists of the CoBrA group, whose name was taken from the initials of their various centres: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Not infrequently their painting, as for instance that of Karel Appel and Asger Jorn, combined an archaic or seemingly naive figuration with an expressive, gestural vocabulary of forms. The paintings by artists such as Pierre Soulages, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Georges Mathieu in early 1950s Paris were increasingly determined by certain currents which, ultimately under the influence of Wols and Hartung, approached the canvas without a trace of representationalism. Lines and colours served solely as a means to convey inner feelings. The spontaneous gesture, the creative act was regarded by all as the governing factor for a work's importance.
In Italy major impulses came from Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni and above all Lucio Fontana and his Concetti spaziali - canvases that he punctured and slit with self-confident gestures. This amounted to a radical reappraisal of the panel painting that extended it into the dimensions of space and time.
In Germany similar aims were pursued by artists such as Bernard Schultze and Karl Otto Götz. In the wake of the cultural devastation unleashed by the Hitler regime, they at first looked strongly to France. In his paintings, which he executed with an extremely swift brush, Götz placed increased emphasis on the time factor. By contrast Schultze - with his plastic configurations burgeoning out from the surface of his canvases - dedicated himself very much to capturing the dimension of space. Much like the Surrealist écriture automatique, his works developed into a kind of mirror of the unconscious through an interplay of chance and control, with vague associative shapes constantly pervading his rich array of abstract forms. For Ernst Wilhelm Nay, the determining factors in his paintings shifted increasingly to rhythm and colour. Starting out from Expressionist figuration, his development led him ever further to abstraction, so that by the early 1950s he had rid his paintings of the last representational elements. In his paintings, Nay traced out the compositional possibilities of his chosen means that left illusionism far behind. Once Socialist Realism became the ruling artistic doctrine in mid-50s East Germany, abstraction experienced yet another upsurge in West Germany, just as it advanced on the international stage to become the expression of the "free world".