Augusta Stylianou Gallery
Hans Unger (26 August 1872 – 13 August 1936) was a German painter who was, during his lifetime, a highly respected Jugendstil artist. His popularity did not survive the change in the artistic climate in Germany after World War I, however, and after his death he was soon forgotten. However, in the 1980s interest in his work revived, and a grand retrospective exhibition in 1997 in the City Museum in Freital, Germany, duly restored his reputation as one of the masters of the Dresden art scene around 1910.
Trademark and artistic influences
Unger was a portraitist and a landscape painter but his reputation stems from his paintings, most of them nearly life-size, of 'beautiful women dreaming of Arcadia (utopia) '. In fact, it was always the same woman being portrayed: his muse, his wife in real-life. Later, his daughter Maja would share her mothers' privileged position. The background to his 'Arcadian woman' would quite often be a pastoral landscape with high cypresses, a garden or a seaside scene.
In his work he was influenced by some important 19th century- and contemporary artists, among whom were: Puvis de Chavannes ("beauty as religion"), Gustave Moreau, Josephin Péladan (the androgyne type), Fernand Khnopff (sphinx-like women, although Unger omitted the lascivious eroticism of Khnopff), William Strang (an English engraver who Unger met in 1895 in Dresden, and later visited in London) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Other important influences were Edward Burne-Jones, Arnold Böcklin (especially his landscapes) and Max Klinger.
Most important works (and first exhibition)
* Estey Orgeln (poster, 1896)
Hans Unger was born in a lower middle-class family in Bautzen, in the Lausitz in the southeast corner of Germany near Poland and the Czech Republic. His father quickly recognized his son's artistic talent, but since he did not think painting would be a thriving occupation for young Hans, he sent him to trade school. This was not a success and quite soon Unger became a house painter (Anstreicher). In 1887 he took up a training position as decoration painter in his home-town. From 1888 to 1893 he was a student in the Painting Class (Malsaal) in the Royal Dresden Court Theatre.
From 1893 to 1895 he studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, where his teachers were Friedrich Preller der Jüngere, Hermann Prell and Richard Müller. Unger can be seen as a representative of the Dresdener Jugendstil movement, among whose members were also Sascha Schneider, Selmar Werner and Oskar Zwintscher. In 1894 he spent summer on the island Bornholm where he made a series of watercolours. In 1896 he designed a poster (Plakat) for the Dresden-based organ manufacturing company Estey, which made him internationally famous and launched his career. In all, he published about a dozen posters that feature for the first time his trademark of the beautiful but dreamlike and almost sleepwalking woman, a motive that was so prominent in much Jugendstil painting.
In 1897 his painting Die Muse (The Muse) was immediately bought by the Staatliche Gemäldengalerie Dresden. From October 1897 to March 1898 he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris where his teachers were Fleury and Lefebvre. Another boost to this career was the commission to design the scenic curtain for the newly built Dresden Centraltheater, in 1899. Unfortunately the building was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden by the Allied forces in February 1945.
In 1899 he also took part in the German Art Exhibition in Dresden where he had his own room, decorated with lila walls and a black wooden rim. Among the works displayed was a Selbstbildnis im Sweater (Self Portrait in Sweater), and Abschied (Farewell), a landscape.
In 1902 he became a member of the newly established Deutsche Künstler Bund (German Artist's Union) and traveled to the North Sea, the Baltic, Italy and Egypt, where he made lots of watercolours and pastel paintings. Unger was a passionate traveler to the South all his life, and the powerful colours in his work reflect this. In 1905 Unger designed a mosaic for the tower of the Ernemannn factory in Dresden, portraying a Licht Göttin (Light Goddess). The tower still exists and is presently at the Schandauerstrasse. In 1898 and 1910, Unger designed the cover illustration for issues of the magazine Jugend. He also illustrated issues of the magazine Pan.
Around 1910, Unger's style changed notably. His stroke becomes more bold, his colours lose their intensity and his choice of motive becomes increasingly monotonic. The dreamlike female figure that around the turn of the century was captivating and fresh became a cliché. Her face had turned harsh and without expression. However, in his portraits and landscapes Unger remained as powerful as he had ever been.
In 1912, the newly built City Museum in his hometown Bautzen opened and celebrated Unger by giving him his own room. He was at the apex of his fame and was called Dresden's letzter Malerfürst (The Last Painting Sovereign of Dresden) by the press. The outbreak of World War I in November 1914 forced many young artists to join the military and fight at the front, but Unger was already so prominent in his profession that he was spared this fate and could continue to devote himself to his art.
In 1917 Unger participated in the exhibition of the Dresdner Kunstgenossenschaft (Dresden Art Society). He designed the catalogue's cover image and showed 6 paintings, amongst which Salome and Liegende Mädchen (Girls Lying), and 6 drawings. In 1918 the Art Exhibition Dresden features Unger with another 11 paintings and 10 drawings. attesting to his popularity and renown in the artistic community. His poster for the concerts of his friend, the composer and director Jean-Louis Nicodé, won him a prize in England for "best German poster".
A lost world
In 1918, Germany lost the war, and it lost also the monarchy. The young artists, returning from the front, were disillusioned and wanted only one thing and that was Change, moving even further away from impressionism and copying reality as they had already done in the years prior to World War I. Unger's world of idealized women in soothing landscapes had been overhauled by the Zeitgeist and his work was being relegated to the background. Nonetheless, Unger still was one of the most wealthy artists in Dresden, and he continued to travel to Italy, Dalmatia, Spain, Portugal and Africa. Unger's visits to Egypt resulted in an exhibition in the Galerie Baumbach in Dresden in 1927 and in King Fuad I of Egypt being one of his mecenasses.
In 1933 the Art Association of Saxony organized an exhibition on the occasion of his 60th birthday. The arts journalist Felix Zimmermann wrote an honorary article on Unger in the Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten of August 25, 1932.
Meanwhile, his health deteriorated. What later turned out to be a kidney disease was treated too late and Hans Unger died in his home in Loschwitz on August 9, 1936. History had certainly caught up with him. Adolf Hitler was already in power for more than three years, the economy was in the worst state of the entire 20th century and the days of Jugendstil and fin de siècle were definitively over.
However, the resurging interest in Jugendstil art in the 1960s brought Unger's work back to the attention of the art connoisseurs. And in 1987 the City Museum in Bautzen organized an exhibition to the 125th anniversary of his birth.
Unger married his wife Marie Antonia in 1899. She was to become his muse, his model and the main motive of his works. She is said to have been quite beautiful and the center of attention of the many friends in the artistic circles in Dresden, especially musicians and writers, that Unger invited to his home.
In 1902, Unger designed his own villa in Loschwitz, a suburb of Dresden. His prominence as a daring young artist and his popularity among the Dresden upper class as a portraitist had made him a wealthy man. Unger also designed the entire interior decoration himself. This however was demolished during a renovation in the early 1970s. The villa, on the Kügelgenstrasse no. 6, still exists and offers a view on the river Elbe and, further away, on the Dresden city centre.
In 1903, his only child, daughter Maja, was born, who had clearly inherited her mother's looks. Her godfather was Sascha Schneider, a lifelong friend of Unger. After her death in 1973, Unger's estate was sold and scattered.
* All of the information given above on Unger's life and work is from the book Hans Unger. Leben und Werk mit dem Verzeichnis der Druckgraphik by Rolf Günther, published in 1997 by Neumeister Art Auctioneers in Dresden (no ISBN) (http://d-nb.info/953061434), at the occasion of the Hans Unger exhibition in the City Museum of Freital from September 7 to October 26, 1997.