In 1968 Richter received a major commission from the Siemens Corporation for a large painting to install in its Milan offices and, working on a scale unprecedented in his photo-painting mode and anxious to deliver an outstanding feat, the artist primed two canvases so as to be ready to start over if it became necessary. Indeed, his first attempt at this scale proved a failure, and Richter was forced to cut that canvas into nine smaller paintings that thereafter became independent works. He then composed and executed Domplatz, Mailand, one of the most assured essays of his photo-painting style to date which was to hang in the Siemens Milan offices for 30 years between 1968 and 1998. Adopting as his source a composed snapshot of the famous view of the Piazza del Duomo in front of Milan’s Cathedral, Richter determinedly yet meticulously blurs the image of the bustling concourse. The composition is dominated by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which juts in from the left edge and recedes dramatically through the center of the canvas, leading the spectator’s eye from left to right towards the straight-on view of the Cathedral itself. The offsetting of the two monumental buildings comprises a stark juxtaposition: while the grand Gothic Duomo took six centuries to complete to become the largest cathedral in the Italian State Territory, the neo-classical Galleria is a spectacular shopping arcade, the largest in Italy, and was completed in 1877. This acutely observed distinction between commerce and religion was noted by Robert Storr: “the subject is one of the most ornate Gothic churches in Europe, and a symbol of feudal civilization in all its grandeur and vulnerability, and, to the left, the portal of a nineteenth-century shopping arcade, a symbol of bourgeois power in all its monumental self-assurance.” (Exh. Cat. New York, The Museum of Modern Art and travelling, Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting, 2002–03, p. 42) The city of Milan has fascinated and enthralled Gerhard Richter for many years, and he has painted numerous scenes of its urban fabric, notably the Duomo itself in 1964 and a series of cityscapes based on aerial views in 1968-9. However, the present painting’s importance to his subsequent oeuvre was extremely significant, as the artist later explained: “Sometimes I’ve enjoyed doing commissioned work, in order to discover something that I wouldn’t have found of my own accord. And so, when Siemens commissioned my first townscape, that led to all the townscapes that followed.” (The artist interviewed by Hans-Ulrich Obrist in 1993 in Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews, 1962-1993, Cambridge, Massachusetts,1995, p. 266)
In 1963 Richter had boldly presented himself unannounced to the legendary gallery owner Ileana Sonnabend in Paris as a 'German Pop Artist' and his early photo-painting corpus, rooted in a panorama of imagery appropriated from newspaper and magazine clippings of supposedly arbitrary selection, has been critically interpreted as a European correlation to American Pop Art as developed by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Richter had first encountered Pop Art in 1962 via a reproduction of a painting by Lichtenstein, but by 1968 and the time of the present work he was well-versed with the aesthetic vernacular and pithy critique of contemporary life that had dominated the avant-garde across the Atlantic for almost a decade. In a certain way, Domplatz, Mailand can readily be considered as Richter’s model contribution to this international movement. Derived from an archetype of the picture-postcard vista – by its composition and viewpoint this is a determinedly beautified view of a famously beautiful scene – via the wholesale appropriation of a found photograph, Richter manipulates an interpretation of reality that was specifically designed for mass-consumption. The role of the photograph in this process is critical, as the artist has explicated: "When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated. The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its way of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source." (The artist in Gerhard Richter: Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London, 2009, pp. 29-30) For centuries, through sequential media such as engraved printing, oil painting, and color-tinted photography, the piazza in front of Milan’s Cathedral has been the subject of picturesque portrayal. With the increasing availability of international travel to Western Europe’s burgeoning middle class in the 1950s and 1960s, Milanese government and industry chose the Cathedral landmark as the clarion call for mass tourism to flock to their city. Richter’s painting presents an important commentary on this successive advertising of the city, and by creating an oil painting of a famously beautiful Italian view on a vast scale he satirizes the concept of the picture postcard as well as delivering an object of astounding beauty.
However, Domplatz, Mailand also represents a moment when Richter's ambition had advanced well beyond a mere riposte to the advent of American Pop, and had developed into an independent, highly-sophisticated philosophy. Whereas American Pop readily satirized burgeoning consumerism and undermined clichés of the American Dream, late 1950s and early 1960s Western Germany lacked the widespread societal presumptions necessary for that brand of cultural parody. The art of Gerhard Richter at this time was borne of an epoch immersed in geopolitical fracture, rather than ever-expanding societal mediocrities. Indeed, the important subsequent cycle of townscape paintings that Domplatz, Mailand initiated, which are characterized by increasingly abstract and impasto brushstrokes coalescing into aerial views of urban topographies, are often cited for their parity with aerial photographs of cities bombed and devastated during the Second World War. Richter later noted that his townscape series was inevitably related to the notorious firebombing of Dresden, which had imprinted such a permanent impression on Richter as a boy living nearby. Hence while Domplatz, Mailand is unquestionably a painting related to the prefabricated iconography of mass-produced popular imagery, and Richter’s subtle re-presentation and distortion comprise a discerning social critique of contemporary modes of visual communication, it is also firmly rooted in the artist’s singular experience of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Having grown up and studied in Dresden before dramatically fleeing to West Berlin with his wife in 1961 and settling in Düsseldorf, Richter was acutely aware of the contrasts endemic to East and West at the height of the Cold War. 1968 was of course a year of spectacular social and cultural transformation internationally, as well as being remembered as a year of widespread student riots, including in Milan. It is fascinating that at this moment Richter portrayed a monumental portrait of two titanic forces of society, fixed forever in ideological competition yet existing side by side in pragmatic cooperation: commerce, as represented by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and religion, represented by the Milan Duomo. And of course it is no accident that these two, arguably irrepressible forces were heavily repressed in the Soviet Bloc. In concert with all the other brilliant conceptual foundations of Richter’s photo-paintings, specific understanding of Domplatz, Mailand as a portrait of commerce and religion, specifically here Capitalism and Catholicism, physically sited through the ages in a perpetual stand-off, makes this painting a defining masterwork of his entire oeuvre.
Emerging from ethereal veils of medium and pigment, the tonal spectrum has been dramatically blurred by the artist's feathering of the wet paint surface with a fine dry brush to inscribe thousands of vertical furrows in a consummate exhibition of sfumato brushwork. As Robert Storr notes, “brushed in generally thin, gently seismic vertical and horizontal hatchings, the image wobbles optically, and the perspective shifts and torques as if it were emanating from a giant black-and-white television set with bad reception.” (Op. Cit.) The standardized and impersonal treatment results in a surface regulation that aptly serves the underlying objectivity of the photo-painting project, as explicated by the artist: "I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit." (in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London,1995, p. 37)
One of the most startling developments of mass-media in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the sudden profusion of color in photo-mechanical production – in reproductions, magazines, newspapers, and finally television – which transformed the possibilities of visual culture designed for mass-consumption. It was precisely these brilliant Technicolor primaries that provided the aesthetic vernacular for Warhol and Lichtenstein, and which consequently became emblematic of Pop Art. However, Richter’s photo-paintings, as demonstrated by Domplatz, Mailand, remained almost exclusively greyscale within the single tonal range from black to white. While his sources came from found photo images, they were not necessarily contemporary images (manifestly unlike Warhol, for example), and frequently belonged to old family photo-albums and vintage reproductions. He has since explained that working in black and white was more authentic to the feel of newspaper reproductions and photojournalism, and that harnessing the dispassionate lens of the photographer-as-eyewitness undermined the role of subject within his painting. The diaphanous layers of the monochromatic palette also align the photo-painting to the authentic experience of just glimpsing an image momentarily, when the eye can work to prioritize tonal data over chromatic information. Catching the transient glimpse of a fleeting moment, this technique also imitates the effect of movement itself, while the combination of an identifiable subject yet indeterminate atmosphere conjures the quality of a half-forgotten memory. Ultimately, through his incomparable technique, Richter confronts the viewer not only with the manipulation of paint, but also the manipulation of perception. He exposes the false autonomy and supposed objectivity ascribed to photography and challenges his audience to question and re-evaluate their perception of contemporary media. By re-establishing painterly control and enlisting his legendary handling of paint to interpret this devastatingly relevant subject-matter, he forces distance between the reproduced image and its audience to focus our eye on issues of re-presentation and visual cognition.
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