- Gerhard Richter
- signed, dated 1982 and incorrectly numbered 496-1 on the reverse; titled on the stretcher
- oil on canvas
- 100.5 by 151 cm. 39 5/8 by 59 1/2 in.
Galerie Buchmann, Basel
Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1983
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Arctic, September 2013 - February 2014, p. 32, illustrated in colour
Stephen Ellis, ‘The Elusive Gerhard Richter’, Art in America, November 1986, p. 138, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, Vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, p. 173, no. 496-2 (text)
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Maler, Cologne 2002, p. 258 (text)
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, London 2009, p. 207, illustrated
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter, Paris 2010, p. 158, illustrated in colour
Orsola Mileti, ‘Alla ricera del sublime’, Cura Magazine, October - December 2010, p. 135, illustrated in colour
Dietmar Elger, Ed., Gerhard Richter Landschaften, Ostfildern 2011, p. 93, illustrated in colour
Dietmar Elger, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1976-1987, Vol. III, Ostfildern 2013, p. 277, no. 496-2, illustrated in colour
Monika Jenni-Preihs, Gerhard Richter und die Geschichte Deutschlands, Vienna and Berlin 2013, p. 167 (text)
As though glowing from within, Eisberg is a masterful example of Richter’s extraordinary capacity to capture light and its changing effects. In so doing, the present work is immediately redolent of the empirical studies of the Impressionists such as Claude Monet, who laboriously studied nature and its ever changing appearance. Monet’s primary concern had been the sensation of colour and its properties and these technical innovations underwrote his highly advanced theoretical approach. As Monet noted, "for me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life - the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value" (Claude Monet cited in: Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the Great Artists – from Blake to Pollock, London 1963, n.p.). Indeed, the same can be said for Eisberg, where the exceptionally rendered surrounding arctic light utterly vivifies the atmosphere and so perfectly captures the changing light of day.
Following Richter’s infamous 1971 exhibition with Blinky Palermo at Heiner Friedrich’s Gallery and the subsequent annulment of his arrangement with the dealer in 1972, the artist decided to leave Dusseldorf for a ten day cruise through the icy straits of Greenland. The main aim of the trip was to experience and photographically record the deserted arctic landscape; as Richter noted, “I see countless landscapes, photograph barely 1 in 100,000, and paint barely 1 in 100 of those that I photograph. I am therefore seeking something quite specific; from this I conclude that I know what I want” (Ibid., p. 19). What Richter specifically sought from this particular arctic expedition was to “take photos in the mode of Caspar David Friedrich's The Wreck of Hope. The whole thing was a project" (Gerhard Richter cited in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago and London 2009, p. 202). Painted in Dresden in 1823-24, Friedrich's canonical work, which is actually entitled The Sea of Ice and today resides in the Kunsthalle Hamburg, envisages William Edward Parry's ship Griper trapped in the ice as it charted the then unprecedented Northwest Passage in 1820. When Friedrich was ice-skating aged just 13 he was saved from drowning by his younger brother Christoph, but in doing so Christoph tragically drowned in the icy water before the artist’s eyes. It can be hardly denied, therefore, that Friedrich's The Sea of Ice must be seen in relation to this traumatic experience. As if in homage, biographical import is also richly prevalent in Richter’s own magnificent reworking of Freidrich's Romantic sublime. Indeed, Richter's biographer and art historian, Dietmar Elger, describes this as the primary catalyst for the creation of Eisberg. Discussing Friedrich's The Sea of Ice, he has argued: "What Richter saw reflected in the painting, however, was his own state of mind", explaining that at the time Richter's marriage was in crisis: "the photographs he took 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 of domestic happiness had, as a consequence, been wrecked" (Dietmar Elger, Ibid., p. 203). Furthermore, Richter himself has recently admitted that the isolation of his polar exodus provided a psychological retreat from his life in Dusseldorf: "The project was also an excuse for getting away... Trouble in my marriage was reaching a climax. Going into the ice could be interpreted as longing for a place where one feels safe – just so long as there is no life, only ice" (Gerhard Richter cited in: ibid.). Eventually, Richter's marriage to Ema collapsed and they divorced in 1981. With Richter embarking work on the present series only one year later, as Elger has posited, Eisberg and its attendant sister works may have been created in an attempt "to work through his unfulfilled hope for familial happiness and to take final stock a difficult period in his life" (Ibid., p. 208).
This psychobiographical framework underlines the prevalence of Richter's personal situation for the creation of Eisberg. Furthermore, the iceberg itself takes on metaphorical significance in representing Richter's own psychical state. In nature, icebergs are physical fragments that have broken away from a glacier or ice shelf; isolated as a consequence of stress and rupture, they are destined to drift aimlessly until the point of their inevitable dissolution back into the liquid state of water. Indeed, the present work can thus be viewed within the thematic arc of what Mark Godfrey terms Richter's "Damaged Landscapes", encompassing both the physical properties of destruction, such as his aerial views of bombed cities and stormy seas; as well as an emotional charge that speaks to both the trauma of the post-war period and of a wilderness period that the artist has described as: "that time I lost the ground under my feet" (Mark Godfrey cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011-12, p. 73).
However, to solely examine this masterpiece through the lens of the artist's biography would be a severe injustice to the major artistic advancements it also represents in the genre of post-modern landscape painting. Paintings with a landscape motif have played a central role in the artist’s practice for over 35 years, a practice that he begun in 1963 with works such as Schloss Neuschwanstein (Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Germany) and another portraying the Alster in Hamburg at night. No other subject has fascinated the artist so extensively nor occupied him over such a long period, yet the total number of landscape paintings is relatively low, making them comparatively rare in his oeuvre. Their underlying significance derives much more from their overriding importance within the body of Richter’s work and in the consistency with which he uses them to inform other motifs – particularly his iconic Abstrakte Bilder. In the present work Richter directly alludes the nineteenth-century tradition of Romantic painting, and yet his interest supersedes a simple or nostalgic yearning for spiritual transcendence via awe-induced reverence of nature. In this vein, art historian and curator Robert Storr has differentiated Richter's work from that of Caspar David Friedrich by noting: "[Richter's] pictures are as beautiful as their natural subjects and beautiful as painted artefacts, but they withhold any invitation to empathy. Whereas romantic paintings generally meet viewers halfway – usually by means of a surrogate figure in the landscape that intensifies their associations and emotions while offering to lift them out of themselves – Richter's paintings of this type are indifferent to the viewer's needs, acknowledging by that pointed indifference that the viewer and his or her needs exist. Thus they portray natural phenomena without symbolic amplification" (Robert Storr cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 53).
In this regard, curator Hubertus Butin views Richter’s notion of ‘Nature’ as a socially domesticated place and his investigation into medially conveyed perception as quite distinct from the transcendental, loaded understanding of Nature found amongst German Romantics: “Richter’s landscape paintings do not go back to any religious understanding of Nature, for him the physical space occupied by Nature is not a manifestation and a revelation of the transcendental” (Hubertus Butin, ‘The Un-Romantic Romanticism of Gerhard Richter’, in: Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy (and travelling), The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990, 1994, p. 462). Instead, by employing the sublime visual language forged in Friedrich’s pantheistic view and passing it through a mechanical photographic document, Richter systematically de-romanticises the sublime landscape genre and empties it of human emotion. Following the irreconcilable events precipitated in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Richter confronts the impossibility of continuity: by invoking the Romantic tradition directly, Richter looked to “make visible the caesura separating his age from Friedrich’s” (Ibid., p. 80). In 1973 Richter acknowledged this strategy: “A painting by Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is ‘good’, it concerns us – transcending ideology – as art that we ostensibly defend (perceive, show, make). Therefore, ‘today’, we can paint as Caspar David Friedrich did” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Letter to Jean-Christophe Ammann, February 1973’, in: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 81). Where his landscape paintings may first appear anachronistic and incommensurate with contemporary practices of high-art, Richter’s detachment and evacuation of sentiment via the serial and mechanical – infusing his work with the vicissitudes of recent history – ensures a legitimate form of landscape painting that is also intensely beautiful. In Richter’s oeuvre the landscapes are “motivated by the dream of a classical order and a pristine world – by nostalgia in other words – the anachronism in them takes on a subversive and contemporary quality” (Gerhard Richter cited in: op. cit., Ostfildern-Ruit 1998, p. 21).
In Eisberg Richter has accurately recorded the visual information of a photograph, thus bypassing the vagaries of subjective interpretation and adhering to his maxim that: "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" (Gerhard Richter, 'Notes, 1964-1965', The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 31). Where Romanticism prescribed an ontological philosophy concerning imagination and emotion, with a marked appreciation for external nature, photography captures a transient moment with "no style, no concept, no judgement" (Gerhard Richter cited in: Peter Sager, 'Mit der Farbe denken', Zeitmagazin 49, 28 November 1986, p. 33). Indeed, Roald Nasgaard has described how Richter's employment of photographs "rescued him from the burden of inherited tradition, and from the alternative traps of the prevailing aesthetics and ideologies around him" (Roald Nasgaard cited in: Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988-89, p. 40). Dependent upon aperture exposure and shutter speed, the photograph is correlated to a finite length of time: as propounded by Storr: "Conceptually, Roland Barthes' definition of the photographic condition as "the that has been" of experiential reality is once again germane. These vistas never were and never will be there for us; they were there for the artist just as long as it took to snap the picture and are only available to him now through the combination of that imperfect documentation and his equally imperfect memory" (Robert Storr cited in: op. cit., p. 67). Moreover, as in the case of Eisberg, Richter has magnified the imagery of a postcard-sized photograph to a metre and a half’s width of canvas, thereby expanding the visual information to create a vision not quite consonant with actual ocular experience and positing vital queries about the realities of visual perception and cognition.
Perfectly summarising the intriguing paradoxes inherent within the present work, in 1986 Richter observed; “of course, my landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost paradises, but above all untruthful (even if I did not always find a way of showing it) and by ‘untruthful’ I mean glorifying the way we look at Nature – Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless; the total antithesis of ourselves, absolutely inhuman” (Gerhard Richter cited in: op. cit., Ostfildern-Ruit 1998, p. 30). Utterly glorifying the mesmeric, inhuman beauty of Nature in its most uncompromising wild state, Eisberg innovatively foregrounds history and artistic inheritance within the complex debate for painting’s legitimacy in the later Twentieth Century.