Gerhard Richter | Into the Mystic


Gerhard Richter painted his first group of Seascapes in 1969 and showed ten of these large paintings at the Palais des Beaux Arts in the spring of 1970 in a joint exhibition with Günther Uecker and Blinky Palermo. The following year, he presented a row of four of the largest size Seascapes—2 metres squared—in his survey show at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf. That exhibition included earlier photo-paintings based on family photographs and pictures culled from newspapers and magazines, the most ambitious of his first group of Color Charts, 192 Colours, 1966, where readymade colors were arranged across the grid according to chance, and another work that reflected his engagement with Marcel Duchamp, the 4 Panes of Glass from 1967. In the context of these different mid-1960s moves, the 1969 Seascapes looked extremely conservative to critics. One reviewer of the Düsseldorf show described the recent work as ‘too beautiful, too romantic, too shallow’ and accused Richter of indulging in ‘an undeniably saccharine painting of nature.’[1] Richter was painting ‘the clichés of landscape’ said another broadcaster, who went on to suggest that the artist was provoking his viewers to question whether he was now a ‘kitsch producer’.[2]

Gerhard Richter, Seestücke (Foto-Collagen) [Seascapes (Photo Collage)], 1969. Art © 2022 Gerhard Richter, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archives Dresden

Given what had come before, these reactions can be forgiven somewhat, but in retrospect, the 1969 Seascapes look more radical than they first seemed: they were responses to the predicament of painting at the moment of the launch of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Looking back at the first group of Seascapes, one can first note how Richter was working with seriality. Rather than making paintings to be seen singly, he was presenting them in groups. This meant that a viewer could never really indulge the illusion that they were looking out on a romantic scene, because they were conscious that the painting in front of them was just one outcome of a serial practice, and it was being presented among other equal outcomes. While some of Richter’s contemporaries created series of works by altering color or shape or orientation from one work to the next, Richter was subjecting weather to this serial logic. Across the series, the Seascapes are cloudy, sunny, windy, calm. Richter was also working with scale and with format: some Seascapes were 170 x 170 cm., others 200 x 200 cm.; all were square, which connected the works to other reductive painting of the time – Robert Ryman’s and Jo Baer’s canvases, for instance, and closer to home, Blinky Palermo’s Stoffbilder, some of which have exactly the same dimensions as the larger Seascapes.

Attentive viewers of the 1969 Seascapes could also have picked up on their complex relationship to photography. They were not simple translations of single photographs, but instead compositions based on collages of different photographs. As his Atlas panels reveal, Richter sometimes cut a stormy sky from one photograph, and a calm sea from another, and collaged them along the horizon: this became the basis for a painting. The careful viewer would be conscious that the meteorological conditions in the seascape before them were impossible, and that the painting was a result of mediation and collage. This point was made most clearly in two paintings called Seestück (See-see). These were based on collages made by cutting the sea from two photographs and pasting them together (one upside down) along the horizon while dispensing with the skies. These paintings were formal manifestations of the idea of rupture, and through them, Richter seems to have acknowledged that as much as he may have wished to pursue the tradition of German Romantic painting, this line could not be continued in a simple way. Indeed, the early Seascapes might be seen as complex reflections on the impact of National Socialism on Richter’s ability to connect with heroes such as Caspar David Friedrich: the desire to connect is there, but there is a recognition that a rupture has taken place.[3]

Richter stopped painting seascapes for a while, but then in September 1975, he presented four new works—including 378—at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf. There were twenty paintings altogether in this show. The Seascapes were exhibited alongside three grey monochromes; the four-part series Tourist and Lion (where the each painting gets more and more abstracted); the largest square Colour Chart to that date, 1024 Colours, made through strict permutations of color mixing; and eight paintings of Gilbert and George, each based on double-exposed photographs of the artist-pair. This is to say that there were five distinct bodies of work in the exhibition, one of which was the result of permutational procedures (1024 Colors) and the others which were presented as series. This was a very specific context for the new Seascapes, and an indication that Richter still wanted them to be seen as rigorously conceptual paintings, rather than only as dreamy scenes of clouds, skies and waves.

And yet… the 1975 Seascapes do have a very distinct mood. Partly this is because of their landscape format, which is a very important shift from the square works of 1969. It is also due to their size: the 1975 paintings are each three metres wide and two metres high, which means that they fill your peripheral vision when close by. They are also much softer, and much more atmospheric than the first Seascapes. Rather than the horizon providing a clean break between waves and sky, in these works, sea and sky almost merge. In two of the paintings (375 and 377), there is a strip of light blue sky below the grey-blue low clouds. In 378, there are patches of dark blue skies to the left and lighter ones to the right, and the sky is dominated by white clouds. While the viewer of the 1969 paintings may have had a nagging sense that they were looking at an enlargement of a studio-made collage, the viewer of the 1975 works accepts the illusion of being in the landscape. When nearby these paintings, there is the distinct sense that you are alone, hovering over the waters, and looking out into an indistinct expanse, but certainly not from the seashore.

This is not surprising. For Richter made these paintings from photographs he had taken from the prow of a ship on a trip he took, solo, to Greenland in August 1972. The trip was made just after he exhibited his 48 Portraits in the German pavilion in the Venice Biennial, and just after the inclusion of his work in Documenta 5. It should have been a moment of triumph but this was apparently a difficult personal time for him, as he was breaking up with his wife.[4] He made the trip to get away from everything, and to see the kind of scene that Friedrich had depicted in the 1823-24 shipwreck painting The Sea of Ice. Evidently, even though Richter had reflected on the historical caesura separating him from Friedrich’s moment, and the irretrievability of the German Romantic tradition, he still pined for the landscapes that inspired it. Feeling his personal life was in ruins, he wanted to experience an environment that he knew only through a painting of disaster.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Polar Sea, 1824. Image © Hamburger Kunsthalle / Bridgeman Images.

For all their sombreness, Richter must have enjoyed painting these Seascapes too. His theoretical interests had taken him towards grey monochromes and permutational color charts for much of the early 1970s. Making the Greys meant putting to one side his long-honed painting skills in order to cover huge expanses with a roller or a house-painter’s brush; completing the Colour Charts required an obsessive and precise kind of labour. By contrast, work on the 1975 Seascapes meant studying photographs, selecting them, projecting them, mixing paints and slowly translating the images onto canvas. There were pleasures in these processes and Richter must have missed them. Even if looking at his then three-year old photographs from his 1972 Arctic journey brought back memories of a difficult time, surely Richter would have enjoyed recreating the scenes he once saw from the boat near Greenland, as he sailed into the mystic.

[1] Werner Kruger, ‘Beauty doomed to fail’, Stadtanzeiger, Cologne, June-August 1971. Translation by Jenny Nachtigall.

[2] Wolfgang Pehnt’, ‘The Art of As-If: Images by Gerhard Richter in Dusseldorf’, Deutschlandfunk, Radio broadcast, 28 July 1971. Translation by Jenny Nachtigall.

[3] See my essay ‘Damaged Landscapes’ in Gerhard Richter: Panorama (eds Mark Godfrey and Nicholas Serota with Dorothee Brill and Camille Morineau, Tate Publishing, 2011.

[4] Dietmar Elger writes that Richter’s ‘marriage was in crisis, and the photographs he made in Greenland were visual analogues for his own failed hopes. He was exhausted by the struggle to find his own way as a husband and father, and felt that his dream domestic happiness had, as a consequence, been wrecked.’ Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, University of Chicago Press, 2002, p.203

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