Josef Hegenbarth belongs to the formative generation of artists of the „klassische Moderne” in Germany. “Painting as a draughtsman and drawing as a painter”, as Fritz Löffler aptly expressed it, Hegenbarth soon evolved to become an exception — far removed from the styles and -isms of his time.
Born on 15 June in Böhmisch Kamnitz (then part of Austria, now Czech Republic), he moved to Dresden in 1905. In contrast to the artists of “Die Brücke” for example, whom he knew, he studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts until 1915. During his studies in Prague from 1917 to 1919 Hegenbarth began a series of large-format portfolio works on literary themes, of which around 20 are still extant.
Establishment as a freelance artist: He acquired a house-cum-studio in Loschwitz, which has been the location for the Josef Hegenbarth Archive since 1987. From the mid-1920s he made illustrations for periodicals, increasingly focusing on motifs culled from his surroundings, which inspired humorous and, in part, grotesque works of art. Meanwhile he was developing his own unique artistic signature. Hegenbarth became a member of the Secessionist movement in Prague and Vienna. His work was exhibited there as well as in many other cities, like Berlin, Venice and, in 1930, in New York.
Retreat from public life: Hegenbarth marries Johanna Aster, who actively promoted his works up until her death in 1988. Following the publication of a cartoon, accompanied by a commentary critical of the regime, Hegenbarth was attacked in the press. This resulted in Hegenbarth sticking to less controversial topics: portraits of people and drawings of animals as well as illustrations for classical literature. His major illustration projects, which comprised hundreds of drawings, remained unpublished until the end of Nazi rule. Small series and humorous vignettes appeared in magazines. A systematic appraisal of this work is yet to be undertaken.
Publications and artistic influence: From the 1950s many book publications followed in rapid succession, using pre-existing and newly-drawn illustrations, as well as catalogues and books of illustrations with Hegenbarth’s works. Motifs from his surroundings — the removal of rubble left by the war, (petit-) bourgeois life and the world of the circus — functioned as inspirational counterpoint to world literature in Hegenbarth’s œuvre.
The Dresden Academy of Fine Arts appointed their former master student as professor in 1946. Exhibitions and accolades in both parts of Germany followed. Hegenbarth became a member of the Academy of the Arts Berlin (East and West) and in Munich. He was awarded, possibly as a reaction to the reinstatement of his Austrian citizenship, the GDR National Prize in 1954.
In his final years, he worked on an expressive series of images inspired by world literature and biblical topics, like The Pentamerone and The Way of the Cross for St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin (installed there since 1963).
Death and posthumous reception: Josef Hegenbarth died on 27 July 1962, aged 78. The documenta put on a posthumous exhibition of Hegenbarth’s drawings in 1964. His work survives in public and private collections all over the world. In 2009 a catalogue of his drawings and sketches was published as an online databank with a detailed literary and exhibition index (www.josef-hegenbarth.de). Since 2014 the Hegenbarth Sammlung Berlin has been showcasing Josef Hegenbarth in dialogue with the work on paper of other artists.