The Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka was born in 1928 in Vienna. His father, like Hrdlicka himself, was a committed communist, who in the 1930s fell foul of the ruling National Socialists and was frequently arrested. Towards the end of the Second World War he and his son joined the Underground movement, also in order to protect his son from having to do military service. Already during the war Hrdlicka began to experiment with art, and began studying painting at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna in 1946. After successfully completing his studies, in 1953 he attended sculpture classes with Fritz Wotruba. His international breakthrough came in 1964 when he participated in the 32nd Venice Biennale, representing Austria. Numerous exhibitions and public sculpture commissions followed, the latter in most cases provoking public outrage. From the 1970s, Hrdlicka held professorships at various institutions, including the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, the Universität der Künste in Berlin and the Universität für angewandte Kunst in Vienna. He consequently influenced an entire generation of artists.
After the experiences and horrors of the Second World War and the Third Reich, most European artists turned to abstraction, since for them what had been experienced rendered the figural in art almost impossible. The committed communist Hrdlicka reacted quite differently, however: the human figure is still central to his oeuvre, so he turned to the Expressionist art of the pre-war period. Moreover, for him art was always political; in his eyes the artist should depict, analyse and criticise the social condition in his works. This does not fit with the medium of abstraction. Even if for Hrdlicka art was always political, abstraction is in a certain sense a commentary without taking a stand, something which he repudiated throughout his life. We can see the many scandals surrounding his public monuments in relation to this position: Hrdlicka had a clear political opinion and perception of history, which he represented in his works without heeding social sensibilities.
The present large format drawing from 1967 is one of a series of drawings comparable in terms of technique and size, which appear time and again in his oeuvre. Barely recognisable, sketched forms stand in contrast to the clearly delineated figures rendered with powerful contours. Only three figures have their faces turned outwards to the viewer; the remaining figures are all in profile. The title specifies the theme of the work, but without giving the viewer any clues as to what extent the piece is about “1001 Nights”, of which we indeed have a clear idea.
The artist plays effectively with our expectations, using contrasts of light and dark as well as powerful and fleeting contours; and through technique and scale he succeeds in lending the drawing a strong pictorial quality.
Signature: Signed and dated lower right: Alfred Hrdlicka 1967.
Image rights: Courtesy of Koller Auktionen
Biennale Sao Paulo 1967 (with the label on the reverse).
Chobot, Manfred. Alfred Hrdlicka. Skulptur und grosse Zeichnungen, Vienna/Munich 1973, no. 17 (with ill.).
Former collection Prof. Dr. Gustav Stein, Cologne.
Private collection Switzerland.