Julius Heinrich Bissier is born on 3 December in Freiburg im Breisgau, where he spends his childhood and school years. He begins to paint while still a student.
His father, prone to depression and suffering from arteriosclerosis since 1906, dies in 1907.
Briefly studies art history at Freiburg University.
Begins studies at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Art, but leaves after a few months. At the outbreak of the First World War, Bissier is conscripted into military service.
He does his military service at the Postal Control Office Freiburg, with Martin Heidegger, among others. Here he meets the painter Hans Adolf Bühler, who appeals greatly to the young Bissier, already inclined towards a doctrine centring on nature, for his pantheistic idea of the world and of art. From this moment his painting develops independently.
Bissier is interested in 15th-/16th-century German painting (Albrecht Altdorfer, Matthias Grünewald, Hans Multscher, Konrad Witz, Hans Baldung-Grien, Hans Holbein) and German mysticism (especially Meister Eckhart, Jakob Böhme, Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Seuse). Until 1922 his paintings in tempera include primordial landscapes, cosmic figures and saints. He soon feels the need to reach a “current form of mysticism".
Meets the great sinologist Ernst Grosse, who introduces him to the art and spirituality of the Far East and becomes one of Bissier's first collectors (he acquired 16 works). Bissier was friends with the scholar until his death in 1927.
First solo exhibition at the Kunstverein Freiburg. This leads him to meeting the doctor Julius König and the psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who widen his horizons and introduce him to contemporary literature and art. Prinzhorn, especially, draws his attention to the Basel mythographer Johann Jakob Bachofen.
Marries the weaver Lisbeth Hofschneider. To earn his living he works for a time as artistic director of an earthenware factory and as a copyist of Baroque painting for a furniture company.
Despite regional success, he abandons his earlier painting and turns to still lifes, landscapes and portraits painted in the stark spirit of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Subsequent to this development, in the second half of the 1920s he takes part in many solo and group exhibitions in Germany, gaining national recognition. At that time he still rejects modern art as “formalistic" and “contrived".
In 1926 his daughter Dorothée is born, followed by his son Uli in 1928.
He produces the first ink drawings, which are still figurative at the beginning, soon produced in large numbers.
Great success for his paintings in the Neue Sachlichkeit spirit, exhibited together with those by other members of the group, such as Otto Dix, Georg Schrimpf and Alexander Kanoldt. For the first time he is honoured with important awards.
Suffers an artistic crisis, together with phases of deep depression, which will accompany him throughout his life. He makes friends with Willi Baumeister, who in his Frankfurt atelier acquaints him with the abstract art of the time; here, among others, Bissier sees works by Picasso, Braque, Léger and Klee – the liberating experience of an “abstract, absolute painting". Gradual transition to non-figurative painting and to experiments with constellations of elementary abstract forms initially placed in severe, schematic compositions that soon appear to him sterile and lifeless. So he turns to painting light, airy designs in India ink, freely applied with the brush.
Teaches a painting class at Freiburg University, where he has two ateliers – one for classes and one for his own work. Bissier also teaches students of natural sciences how to draw microscopic specimens. His wife Lisbeth opens her own textile studio.
No possibilities for exhibiting.
During a trip to Paris he visits Constantin Brancusi's studio. The visit convinces him of the possibility of a synthesis between spirituality and abstraction, which until then he had considered a cold exercise. This leads to an enduring impulse to follow the path of spiritual abstraction (in the sense of Kandinsky). He begins to produce non-figurative drawings in India ink, freely brushed on to paper, and these will be present in his work for the next 35 years, until his death.
During a fire in a wing of Freiburg University, Bissier's two studios are destroyed, along with almost all the works created in the past years. His teaching gradually lessens. Shortly afterwards his son Uli dies. The pressure of the Nazi regime in the public sphere constantly increases. Bissier reacts to all this by withdrawing into himself: an “inner emigration". From now on he works secluded at home, on a small table and mainly at night: brief annotations in ink of landscapes, constellations of simple things.
He becomes close friends with Oskar Schlemmer.
1935 and 1937, trips to Italy (Milan, Rome, Ravenna, Assisi, Tuscany): initially as brief annotations, he produces ink drawings of landscapes. Beginning of the “Tarnbildern" (mimetic images), small paintings of fruit, stones, vessels: with these works Bissier wants to legitimize himself to the world as a “figurative painter" (until approximately 1942).
Influenced by the writings of Johann Jakob Bachofen, to which he repeatedly returns, he produces a series of small-format ink works on paper and “symbolic inks" (“Symboltuschen"), which synthesize through elementary symbols the bi-polar constellations (male-female, wave-rock, life-death, protected-threatened) and thus refer as much to myth, philosophy and European mysticism as to philosophical concepts of the Far East (above all, Taoism and Zen). In their free play of forms, his later “coloured miniatures" also take up symbols from Bachofen's works (for instance, poppy capsules, cists, lotus, lamps). For the first time, Bissier fully succeeds in realizing what had so impressed him in Brancusi, the integration of abstraction and spirituality.
The family moves to Hagnau am Bodensee. In the buildings of an old ship mooring belonging to Hagnau convent, Lisbeth Bissier installs her weaving workshop, which will support the family. As well as his work on the ink drawings, Bissier takes care of the bookkeeping and correspondence for the weaving studio, plays a great deal of music, makes designs for upholstery and fabrics, and tries his hand at making arts and crafts objects. After a prolonged struggle to overcome every form of provincialism, Bissier sees himself forced into extreme isolation once again.
After the death of Alexander Kanoldt and Georg Schrimpf and thanks to his earlier pictures, in the spirit of the Neue Sachlichkeit, Bissier is considered for a teaching position at the Berlin Academy; however he declines, far from any “reconsidering" on an artistic level.
Experiments with the production of ceramic vessels and occasionally works in the studio of master potter Richard Bampi in Kandern.
Death of his friend Oskar Schlemmer. Bissier notes in his diary:
In the chaos at the end of the war (requisition of quarters by the occupying troops in Hagnau, requisition of the atelier, etc.), artistic production is virtually brought to a standstill. In the time that follows, his hopes for a definitive improvement in his situation as an artist are dashed. Due to his isolation, he was never officially “banned" during the Third Reich, and so he is now ignored by the period of cultural reconstruction.
The ink works continue until 1949, then for a few years recede into the background. Their place is temporarily taken by woodcuts, coloured monotypes – preceded since 1943 by experiments with colour – and also trials with watercolour, in which Bissier cautiously attempts to include colour again into his work without surrendering the spiritual concentration achieved with the ink paintings. In these years he also tackles geometry, thanks to meeting Max Bill.
Beginning of the coloured “miniatures" in egg-and-oil tempera on linen canvas, irregularly cut or torn pieces of cotton, as well as watercolours on paper. These lyrical works, without the constellations of signs in the earlier inks, bring him late but great fame. In 1956, the first stay in Ticino.
Exhibition in the Kunstverein Freiburg, together with Max Bill and Georges Vantongerloo.
Experiments in geometricalizing forms in oil paintings of different formats, which is not pursued.
Sojourn in Tourettes-sur-Loup (southern France). Starting in the autumn of this year, annual sojourn in Ticino (Ronco sopra Ascona). Friendship with Jean Arp, who lives in Locarno-Solduno.
Friendship with Werner Schmalenbach. First large retrospective at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, which travelled to a number of German museums (Duisburg, Hagen, Bremen, Ulm). Takes part in the XXIX Venice Biennale. Sudden international fame: his work is held to be mainly within the Informel trend. Bissier finds it difficult to cope with so much unexpected success.
Awarded the Cornelius Prize of the City of Düsseldorf. Takes part in Documenta II in Kassel. Friendship with Ben Nicholson, who lives in Ticino at this time.
Retrospective exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.
Solo show at the XXX Biennale in Venice. Awarded the Kuntspreiz of the City of Berlin. First exhibitions in Paris and London.
Solo show at the VI Biennale of Sao Paolo. Member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Honorary member of the Nuremberg Art Academy. First exhibition at the Lefebre Gallery in New York. Retrospectives in Brussels and Jerusalem.
Moves from Hagnau to Ascona, to “Casa Rondine", near Lake Maggiore. The landscape, the climate, the colours and the light of Ticino have an animating and stimulating effect on Bissier. He photographs, plays and listens to music, enjoys visits from friends and reads a great deal.
Friendship with Mark Tobey, who has lived in Basel since 1960.
Retrospective at the Hamburg Kunstverein (subsequently travels to Ulm, Stuttgart, Wuppertal, Mannheim, Freiburg). Prize of the Belgian art critics. Solo exhibitions at Rio de Janeiro, Buffalo N.Y., New York, Basel and Munich.
Comprehensive retrospective exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, which then travels to Chicago, Detroit, Utica N.Y., and Los Angeles. Exhibition at the Beyeler Gallery, Basel, together with Jean Arp, Ben Nicholson and Mark Tobey.
Takes part in Documenta III in Kassel. Awarded the Grosser Kunstpreis of Nordrhein-Westfalen. Many exhibitions, among which also in La Medusa Gallery, Rome.
Retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Other solo shows (New York, Texas, Campione, Copenhagen).
On 8 June, Julius Bissier dies in Ascona.
From: Matthias Bärmann (ed.), Julius Bissier - Obras 1934-1965 - Tintas, Acuarelas, Témperas, exhibition catalogue, Valencia / Madrid 1997.