Pioneering an exhilarating dialogue between Richter’s two most prolific aesthetic modes, Vesuv stands as a fundamental constituent of the artist’s longstanding thesis on the synthesis of the painted and photographic image within Contemporary art. Titled after Mount Vesuvius, the slumbering volcano visible in the hazy foreground of the present work as viewed from the island of Capri, the painting’s name alone invokes a mythic historical narrative spanning over two millennia; employing a classical restraint in its calm and ordered composition, Vesuv further invokes time-honored centuries of landscape painting, imbuing the alluring vista with the portentous significance of esteemed art historical legacy. Describing himself in relation to his aesthetic predecessors, Richter remarks, “I do see myself as the heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting – of art in general – which we have lost, but which places obligations on us. And it is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence.” (Gerhard Richter in "Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986", Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 148) Distinguishing Vesuv from art historical precedent, Richter renders the shimmering landscape through the gauzy blur of a photorealism; as if glimpsed through a fogged window or smudged lens, Vesuv is beguilingly enigmatic, veiling the alluring simplicity of palette and composition in an elusive anonymity that denies any attempt to anchor the view in reality. Articulating this uncanny instability in his own paintings, Richter notes, “If the Abstract Pictures show my reality, then the landscapes and still-lifes show my yearning...though these pictures are motivated by the dream of classical order and a pristine world – by nostalgia, in other words—the anachronism in them takes on a subversive and contemporary quality.” (Gerhard Richter in "Notes 1981," Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, pp. 98-99)
The genre of landscape painting has long held an irresistible allure for Richter, appearing in the artist’s oeuvre as early as 1963 and reemerging, often after long intervals, as a tempting vision of reality alongside his enigmatic Abstrakte Bilder. Persuasive affirmations of his talent as a master painter, Richter’s landscapes pay homage to the tradition of Romantic landscape painting, conjuring and conflating the ethereal light of J.M.W. Turner’s cityscapes with the unsettling serenity of Caspar David Friedrich’s sweeping, desolate vistas. Delicately rendered in sfumato brushwork and pearlescent, layered pigment, Vesuv is particularly evocative of the vast, all-encompassing horizons of such Friedrich works as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and The Monk by the Sea, thus enacting a powerful reengagement with the profound legacy of German Romanticism. Unlike Friedrich’s broad expanses of sea and sky, however, Vesuv is devoid of any human presence; instead, by articulating the awesome immensity of Friedrich’s pantheistic views within the modern vocabulary of photorealism, Richter’s exquisite landscape achieves the purest possible evocation of the transcendent sublime. Eloquently describing Richter’s unique dialogue with the legacy of German Romanticism, art historian and curator Robert Storr notes: "[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 a daring challenge to the tradition of representation that precedes him, Richter resists the urge towards figuration, instead conjuring a vision that reflects the cognitive dissonance inherent to his practice as a modern artist. Although pursued through distinct means, Richter’s Photo Paintings draw on concerns similar to those of his contemporaries Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer, both of whom pursue an artistic practice that confronts painting with the modern analysis and assault of the camera lens. Though sourced from a single image, Vesuv, amongst Richter’s paintings, is haunted by the boundless possibility of the pictures not painted; this fact is evidenced by the wealth of unpainted landscapes that fill the pages of Atlas, a collection of photographs, clippings, and sketches that the artist has been assembling since the mid-1960s. The Vesuv cycle, alongside the subsequent Venice cycle, illustrate the artist’s desire to realize a number of these realities, freeing the chosen landscape from the restraints of a single composition. The subtle blurring and anonymity of the painting unifies and generalizes the motif, reverently referencing the infinite unrealized landscapes that haunt the chosen vista in an emphatic articulation of the artist’s sentiment: “I don’t believe in the absolute picture. There can only be approximations, experiments and beginnings, over and over again.” (The artist cited in Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 199) In succumbing to the futility of his own project, Richter transcends his predecessors to draw closest of all to making known the unknowable: to rendering the sublime. Serene in its simplicity, Vesuv offers the possibility of the incomprehensible infinite in a single, exquisitely rendered horizon.
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