Gerhard Richter cited in: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 11
Beautifully rendered in meticulous, monochromic sweeps of pigment, Säbelantilope exudes Gerhard Richter’s virtuosity with a brush and offers pure proof of the artist’s mastery of virtually all pictorial techniques across the span of his formidable career. On the precipice between photographic realism and painterly abstraction, the present work explores and articulates the intrinsic problems of visual representation during the post-war period. Richter himself asserts, “There are perhaps no essential differences between a figurative and a non-figurative picture… both are pictures; that is, whatever they represent, they do so through the same methods. They appear; they are not what is represented, but its appearance. This is, no doubt, not new, but is important for me because I am also in favour of illusionism in painting…” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Exh. Cat., Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Eine Privatsammlung/A Private Collection, 2004, p. 56). As an early work within the artist’s prodigious oeuvre, Säbelantilope thus offers an overture to the captivating confrontation between the radical abstraction of Richter’s revered Abstrakte Bilder and the evocative nostalgia of his exquisite Photo Paintings, encapsulating a serious testament to enduring technical genius.
Upon the surface of the present work, seemingly neutral objectivity is replaced by the viewer’s individual and fluid interpretation of imagery; in this case, that of a sable antelope – an animal indigenous to the wooded savannah of East Africa. Here the animal stands in profile, its head turned towards the viewer and its brilliant white flank juxtaposed against deeper shades of dove grey, slate grey and black. The canvas forms part of a larger series of works exploring the representation of animals through a characteristically blurred surface and the elegant subtlety of monochromatic hues, including Tiger (1965) and Deer II (1966). Säbelantilope is based on a photograph embedded in panel five of Richter’s Atlas, the foundational source material and preparatory documentation for the artist’s practice. Richter selected the original photograph of the sable antelope in 1962, and four years later he translated the image to canvas by means of brush and oil paint in the neutral shades of black and white photography.
While Richter began re-purposing photographs as visual aids in the late 1950s, his tendency to turn towards the medium of photography is deeply rooted in his younger years. The artist reveals, “For a time I worked as a photographic library assistant: the masses of photographs that passed through the bath of developer every day may well have caused a lasting trauma” (Gerhard Richter cited in: op. cit., pp. 56-57). However it was only during the 1960s that photographic imagery became a literal, direct source for his paintings. In a 1966 interview with Dieter Hulsmanns and Fridolin Reske – the same year the present work was executed – Richter claimed, “A photograph… is simply the best picture that I can imagine. It is perfect; it does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous and unconditional. It has no style. The photograph is the only picture that can truly convey information, even if it is technically faulty and the object can barely be identified” (Gerhard Richter cited in: ibid., pp. 56-57). Through its tonal contrasts and lustrous streaks of silvery pigment, the technical framework of Säbelantilope invests the medium of photography with a breath-taking sense of animation, leaving its subject blurred and slightly out of focus. As such, the surface of Richter’s image is uniquely soft, bearing almost no evidence as to the mark-making of the painter.
Richter was trained under the heavy ideology and aesthetic dogma of Socialist Realism, and it was only after the artist’s emigration to West Germany in 1961 that he radically changed the nature of his practice; a stylistic metamorphosis that would have a profound effect upon the history of contemporary painting. Along with notable figures such as Sigmar Polke, Richter became a proponent of Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism), which used popular imagery as a sardonic critique of how ideology could be visually presented as reality on both sides of the Iron Curtain. As such, in the seemingly fleeting, passing moment rendered on the surface of Säbelantilope, we see Richter freeing himself from the figurative constraints of Socialist Realism, finding his stride in the threshold between the illusory and the concrete. Both spatially ambiguous and deeply evanescent, Säbelantilope thus touches upon the most profound cornerstone of Richter’s oeuvre, which has consistently and magnificently scrutinised the potential of the painted image in the photographic age.
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