‘I find nothing fantastic in so-called fantastic art,’ Thomas Häfner wrote of his work. ‘It is an aspect of reality in search of sanity beyond the normal bounds. I believe that fantastic art is related to the protective dream, that it prolongs the healing dream, and finds symbols that change dread into wonder, strangeness and beauty.’

The son of the popular artist Herbert Häfner and the Jewish painter Ilse Häfner-Mode, Thomas Häfner, whose work is often attributed to the Surrealist school, was in truth far too much of an individualist to allow himself to be assigned to any particular art movement.

Häfner, who was very vulnerable as the son of a Jewish mother in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, spent the Nazi era with his uncle in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The young Häfner was particularly fascinated by the fauna of the tropical island state, and this is probably why exotic creatures repeatedly find their way into the artist's dream and nightmare-like works. When he returned to Germany in 1948, Häfner enrolled at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf Art Academy), where he studied with Theo Champion and Otto Pankok. From the very beginning Häfner loved to fill his pictures with numerous people in the manner of Bosch or Brueghel. At the Kunstakademie he met fellow painters Günther Cremers and Hannelore Köhler, with whom he founded the Young Realists group of artists. With numerous exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s, this group of artists opposed the one-sided primacy of abstract painting.

Häfner’s childhood story is closely intertwined with his exile from Nazi Germany, leaving a deep impression on his personality and outlook. His pictures reveal strong feelings of fear and anger, but also a preoccupation with carnality and death. With his inner turmoil, he found refuge in a painting world in which dream and reality flow into one another.

In addition to his numerous paintings, Häfner also created bronze sculptures and jewellery. Just like his pictures, these were characterised by a dark underlying tone. Memories of his childhood in Ceylon shaped his style, with fantastic, surreal depictions of human figures, hybrid creatures and masks.

We are very grateful to our Russian friend Yuri for suggesting the inclusion of this artist, and for supplying most of the images.

Example illustration