Contemporary Art

Richter and Friedrich: Kindred Spirits

By Maria Zinser

S tanding in front of Gerhard Richter’s great Eisberg, which features in the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale on 8 March, one is immediately affected by its romanticism and a desire to understand the piece from a 19th century perspective. Caspar David Friedrich, Dresden Romantic par excellence, claimed that “the artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” Studying in front of nature was crucial to Friedrich, but the making of an artwork was a creative process, using nature to express feelings. In post-war Germany, Friedrich’s work was once again re-discovered and evaluated, especially in Gerhard Richter’s hometown of Dresden. In 1972, Richter embarked on a cruise to Greenland in an attempt to escape troubles of both personal and professional nature in Düsseldorf and with the aim of taking photos in the manner of Friedrich’s Sea of Ice, an icon of German romanticism. Friedrich himself had never travelled much further north than Copenhagen and approached the unknown through studies of floes on the river Elbe.


Both images have a profound impact on the viewer. Friedrich’s is a completely abstract picture, an invention of the artist’s mind, possibly reflecting on the trauma of watching his brother Christoph die in the ice saving the artist’s life. One feels helplessly imperilled to the sublime landscape of Friedrich’s massive ledges and shattering sheets of ice which brutally crush a boat. At second look, the warmer colours of the ice in the foreground direct the viewer’s gaze up towards the sky where the sun will break through at any moment and might still rescue the seemingly doomed ship. After the divorce from his wife Emma in 1981, Richter eventually started work on Eisberg, 10 years after his journey. Surrounded by absolutely still, shimmering water, the iceberg in Richter’s painting looms in the middle-distance. Severed from the ice cover, the lonely iceberg is bound to drift aimlessly until it dissolves. There is no trace of human existence, the still water echoing a prevailing silence. The Nordic light of neither night nor day heightens the atmosphere of a melancholy mood that is profoundly beautiful.


It is interesting to examine Richter’s working method through which he questions the way we perceive our environment as ultimately subjective. Richter was aware that his emotionally fragile state when travelling to the North had an impact on how he experienced his surroundings. By painting from a photograph, he attempted to create a more objective image that is neither studied from nature nor constructed in the way Friedrich’s work is, that is devoid of individual artistic expression: “I needed the greater objectivity of the photograph in order to correct my own way of seeing: for instance, if I draw an object from nature, I start to stylize and to change it in accordance with my personal vision and my training.”

However, Richter had chosen for his photograph a composition and lighting inherent in the landscape that reminded him of Friedrich at a time when he saw his own failed hopes reflected in Friedrich’s Sea of Ice. He came back to the motif when the struggle from which he had fled ten years earlier had finally led to the wreckage of his domestic happiness. Richter elicits in the viewer a similar effect to Friedrich but by totally different means. Contrary to Friedrich, he did not express his emotions by painting the landscape but painted a picture after a photograph that glorifies a landscape which he chose for its intrinsic melancholy.

Maria Zinser works in the 19th Century European Paintings department who are currently accepting consignments for their sale on 6 June 2017.

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