Artist Hans Ittmann

Sandra Smets 23.11.2013
Max Dereta

The notary son who became a sculptor

The Amsterdam artist Hans Ittmann (1914-1972) would become a notary, but one day before his exam in 1941 he decided to abandon it and become an artist. That decision would lead to a diverse oeuvre of reliefs, ceramic small plastic, and especially of free sculptures. It started in the war years with gouaches, in which much later a journalist from the Vallei newspaper (in 1990) would recognize a craving for modernity. He mainly started sculpting, initially realistic, for which he was apprenticed to Cephas Stauthamer (1941-43). Shortly after the war, Ittmann traveled to Paris where he lived on a grant from the French government. He studied there for about three years (from 1946 to - presumably - 1949), first at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, then under Gimondeau and in 1948 in the Zadkine studio - the same time that Zadkine was busy with The Destroyed City. It paid off to get an apprenticeship with Zadkine. He had many Dutch students. Han Richters, who worked partly with Zadkine at the same time as Ittmann, was able to get started immediately after Paris with assignments for free images. You see more of the teacher's influence on Zadkine's students Couzijn and Tajiri than on Ittmann. He admired rather diverse artists: Arp, Moore, Dufy, Klee, Pevsner, Malevich and later Pollock - influences that can all be found in his work. But: "Although Zadkine's sculpture was of less significance for his work, Ittmann always retained a preference for this master too."

Trips abroad

Paris was considered the cultural capital of the world. If ambitious Dutch artists wanted to travel, they would go there. Certainly after the war, when there was a great feeling that innovations and a broader horizon were important to break with the traumatic history of war. Many did not travel, too expensive, but Ittmann came from a family with money, so he never had to do his best to present himself on the market. Ittmann even went to Paris several times, traveled through South America (1948), North Africa (1953) and Yugoslavia and Italy (1955). It gave him ethnographic inspiration that you see in some images, in others you recognize Western modernisms. He was an omnivore, great examples were Dufy and Picasso, but you can also recognize countless other masters in his work that had become abstract in Paris. Like many contemporaries, he investigated various fields: as a painter, draftsman, graphic artist, sculptor, he worked in oil, mosaic, bronze, etchings and made brush drawings. Ittmann was blamed - initially - to fan out too many different directions without their own style. (Free People, 1948: "How dare a visual artist, who tries to be worthy of that name, show such stupid statues in the footsteps of Zadkine?").

Back to the Netherlands

Ittmann returned from Paris for an assignment in the exhibition 'Milestone 1950'. De Volkskrant sabbed down his contribution ("a foolish banana with a frog's head and, as it were, placed on gun barrels, two eyes like egg yolks"). Artists appreciated it and other press was interested and positive from the 1950s. Ittmann has been a member of the NKVB (Dutch circle of sculptors), Arti et Amicitiae, Liga Nieuwebeelden, and participated in exhibitions at these institutions. He also exhibited in Sonsbeek and the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. His work was exhibited at the 'Jeune sculpture' exhibitions in 1950 and 1951, at the E55, at group exhibitions of the Dutch Art Foundation and as a group at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. His work is included in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, in the Rijkscollectie, and in private collections.

Commissioned art

In 1951 he was asked to become a member of the artist group 'Creation: the association for Absolute Abstraction', which included Wim Crouwel, among others. Ittmann is a pioneer who allows the group to merge with the Free Images group into the New Images League. He became an advocate for commissioned art; in accordance with the prevailing idea of ​​reconstruction, he thought that art should integrate into architecture, in the city, in life. Like many contemporaries, Ittmann did not specialize in wall art (mosaics, murals) but remained a sculptor - for the free market and commissioned. (Although in practice he was often in conflict with clients.) From the 1950s he worked a lot for clients (schools, a radio, university building and other new buildings): metal reliefs, a single ceramic wall, stone relief, geometric wall works of wood and concrete. Most of the assignments were for free sculptures, which were mostly metal plastic in the 1950s. Around 1970 they became more massive and organic, one like a stylized flower, two poultry for a park, bronze human figures inspired by ethnografisca or related moderns (Ernst, Brancusi, Tajiri). The images were around 2 to 5 meters high. Although Ittmann continues to use different techniques and styles ("an ever-searching artist" states the press after his death), an important development is that of metal wire plastic at the end of the 1950s. In it he comes to his own style, albeit based on the Russian constructivists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner (some statues resemble Gabo's work at the Bijenkorf).

Ittmann and Rotterdam

It seems that Ittmann made three works for Rotterdam: a metal relief for a school in Overschie in 1963 (Chr. Eloutmavo) and an almost two-meter high abstract metal plastic for a gymnastics school on the Van Aelstsingel in Prins Alexanderpolder. The third image is a supposedly untitled image: 4,6 meters high, copper-plated steel covered with zinc chromate. It is placed in 1966 on a high rectangular base on the landing of the school building on the Blaak (Jan Prins and Willem Witsenschool). "With this abstract creation the artist wanted to show a connection between the destroyed and resurrected city." (From: Statues, monuments and sculptures in Rotterdam, Gem. Archiefdienst, 1972). That makes the image one Phoenix , although that is not the title originally. On the back of a photo from that time in the collection of the RKD, it says: Bird, with a question mark. It says that it was commissioned by Van Tijen, Boom and Posno Rotterdam.

Between Gabo and Zadkine

Ittmanns Phoenix fits in his studies from the sixties: variations of thread, mass, airy and sometimes more massive (Hepworth-like) forms. He liked to work against gravity, with a grace that made the sculptures lighter than they were. His phoenix is ​​stylistically related to a bronze shell of squares that he made for a foundation in Amstelveen, and especially to a sculpture in a stairwell of a police station in Den Helder: a constructivist whirlwind. It has a kind of branching that you also see Phoenix , the idea of ​​movements on a staircase, with what here seem to be references to Duchamp or cubism. But more than before you can say about the style of this image: this is not someone else, this is Ittmann. The phoenix, a bird that rises from the ashes, became popular last century and is an outstanding theme for destroyed cities. On the platform of a school, right in the center of the city, Ittmann apparently found it an ultimate opportunity to teach the youth how a new city and a better future would arise from the destroyed past. With its large dimensions, and on a high base, the bird connects heaven and earth. Ittmann had few recurring themes - apart from the fascinations within abstract art, namely space, weight, mass and emptiness. You can see that in his phoenix, a materialization of power, mass that gravity tortures. Gravitational, the bird is a logical theme. You can see that in another bird sculpture that he made for an assignment in Dalfsen. But that image does not have the constructivist, or perhaps cubist, formal language of this Phoenix. In the late 1950s, Ittmann came up with wire plastics that herald the start of his most mature and interesting work. He worked on it for years. Also in the Phoenix do you recognize traces of that: building mass and emptiness, forming squares with mass.

The style came from Gabo, but the theme was not. He might have owed it to Zadkine. The Destroyed City, the future Rotterdam war memorial, occupied an important place in the life of Zadkine in the 1947-1950 period, when Ittmann worked in his studio. Zadkine designed various scale models of the image, which traveled through exhibitions in 1948 and 1949 in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, among others. The expressive figuration can be seen in Ittmanns Phoenix, also the combination of mass and emptiness. That combination was regarded as a modern sculpture issue, an abstract principle that became a metaphor in Jan Gat. The idea that you can use modern abstractions for a story, Ittmann clearly shared that desire with Zadkine, at least with this sculpture. Mass and space are decisive in the sculptures of Ittmann, in the form of wire constructions: just like Gabo's Beehive statue, Ittmann's sculptures are made up of threads, which form surfaces that form mass. So with this one Phoenix forms a beautiful bridge between two important Rotterdam images.

Also the presentation technique for the Phoenix looks like Zadkine's plan to The Destroyed City to visit museums. Ittmann showed the scale models of two images for completion at an exhibition: the Phoenix and a boat he had designed for the embassy in Bonn. Two newspapers report the models at Ittmann's exhibition at 1965 in 't Venster. It may be the only time that Ittmann used this tactic, it could also be that he did it more often but this time the media noticed. De Tijd-Maasbode wrote at the exhibition in question in 1965 in 't Venster that Ittmann moved forward to a cloudless sky, just like Constant, which made his painting radiate optimism. It writes about "a design for a bronze bird with a wide-ranging wing, for a school on the Nieuwe Markt in Rotterdam." Dolf Welling in the Rotterdams Nieuwsblad wrote about the lively looking exhibition and the design of the bird that would be four meters high are going to rise at the school: “Rotterdam wins a good picture with that, regardless of the fact that I see it more as a butterfly than a bird, and in that butterfly again the winged caterpillar, which is emblematic of humans.

A message in 'Tijd-Maasbode' by 27 May 1966 talks about a four-meter high plastic, on a platform of the School complex on the Grote Markt. The landing is located between the main building and a gym of the complex. B&W has commissioned the making of plastic within the 1% scheme for artistic decorations of school buildings. “With his abstract creation, the sculptor wanted to show a connection between the destroyed and the resurrected city. His intentions are further underlined because people can see the plastic against a background of new facades and behind that the Laurenstoren. ”

Market and oblivion

Ittmann disappeared from the media between 1969 and 1990, there is not much good documentation of his work. Photos are almost always without a date, which makes it difficult to date his oeuvre well. Information is virtually missing. After his death, his wife decided to step out of life. After that, Ittmann's art disappeared from the media and out of sight. Much of his work can be purchased at auction houses from the end of the 1990s (perhaps also before). Oil paintings do around 4.000 guilders. A few sculptures have been auctioned over the last five years. A metal statue from 1950-60, wire plastic with metal surfaces, 44 cm height, is for sale in 2006 at Christie's, estimated price 10.000-15.000 euro, hammer price 11.000 euro. A metal animal, 71 cm height, has been sold for 2.400 euros. An ancestor figure at Christie's was sold for 6.500 euros (estimated revenue was 2.500-3.500 euros), 53 cm height. It seems that prices have risen: a wooden statue of 72 cm does 1995 guilders in 2.200 (estimated was 1.500-2.000 guilder) and that same year a sitting man did wood, 50 cm, 5,800 guilders instead of the 1.000 / 1.500 that was expected . In recent years, his paintings have been running around 1000 euros to a few times 7.500 euros. Cloths on average one square meter, often smaller. The gouaches do such an 500-700 euro on average.


Ittmann's work is more European than that of Dutch contemporaries from the monumental sector. His downside is his windiness, which makes it hard to say: this is really Ittmann, or, these are really the highlights of his oeuvre. Art historians have made little effort and he has no descendants who have done this for him. If you really have to point out highlights, then it is the constructivist works that he started in the late 1950s and elaborated on in the 1960s. The Phoenix comes from that and even has its own form - this is not Gabo or Zadkine, this is Ittmann. That makes this image special in his oeuvre. A tough reconstruction image, elegant and raw at the same time, a connection between earth and heaven, destruction and dream.

Above all, it is special for Rotterdam. This is a Dutch interpretation of the European avant-garde, with the city of Rotterdam as the theme and starting point. In theme and style, this image is about Rotterdam as a modern city, about defeating the enemy, about reconstruction and the glorious future. It is beautiful how this sturdy image with steel seems to be a reference to the tough port city of Rotterdam, where you can find this material on the street, so to speak. It would be nicely glorious in its place in an environment with space, for example the Lloyd Quarter, where again reconstruction art by contemporaries of Ittmann seems to have been demolished. The always moving forward of a city and its art is very beautiful, but a historical realization makes you better appreciate that environment. This very Rotterdam image can contribute to that.

Related artwork

Phoenix (1966) Hans Ittmann