Baumgruppe exhibits a powerful dance between past and present: the landscape in the background conjures a photographic instant in time, the gestural swathes of paint in the foreground a succinct reminder of both the present, and equally, the presence of the artist’s hand. Richter’s audience is thus left in a state of visual limbo, as art historian Robert Storr has outlined, “The tensions increase between the desire for one thing (a beautiful imaginary place to which the viewer might escape) and the actuality of another (a beautiful painting that checks that escape and makes the viewer acutely conscious of its impossibility)” (Robert Storr, ‘Openings and Culs de Sac’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 67). As such, we are intentionally left yearning for the conventional, classical beauty of Richter’s seemingly romanticised, half-concealed landscape. Yet the artist himself asserts, “Of course, my landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all ‘untruthful’… and by ‘untruthful’ I mean the glorifying 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: Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Eds., Gerhard Richter: Text, Cologne 2009, p. 158).
Richter’s extraordinary articulation of nature throughout his oeuvre as both glorified and inhuman is undoubtedly reminiscent of, yet antithetical to, late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century German Romantic landscapes, and in particular, Caspar David Fredrich’s allegorical panoramas featuring the colossal scale and metaphysical dimension of nature. Richter’s work manifests the very same sense of grandeur, atmosphere, and melancholy: “For me, there’s an authentic historical reference to Romanticism. It’s what distinguishes me from the hyperrealists who represent all the elements of our contemporary world – cars, highways, etc. I paint historical paintings… I think we just haven’t surpassed Romanticism. The paintings of that period are still part of our sensibility… Romanticism is far from being a closed book” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Ibid., p. 82). The works Richter painted in 1987, the same year Baumgruppe was executed, also allude to the strong sense of spirituality that resides at the philosophical core of German Romanticism and its view of nature. All of Richter’s figurative paintings executed in 1987 either depict blooming, budding trees or serene cathedrals – sometimes together, as in the hauntingly beautiful composition Domecke, which shows a shaded cathedral corner and a lush, partially sun-soaked tree. In the same series, Richter also painted a dramatic, photo-realist cathedral interior which he later overpainted, translating the entire composition into chromatic abstraction akin to the surface of the present work. Baumgruppe offers a sublime example of this process of translation – from representation to abstraction – yet here the process is frozen through intervals and layers of time and meaning. Richter affirms, “…the landscapes are a type of yearning, a yearning for a whole and simple life. A little nostalgic. The abstract works are my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties, my contradictions….” (Ibid., p. 146). In Baumgruppe, we are magnificently awarded such intended sentiments – yearning, presence and contradiction – through a symphony of compositional tension and divergent pictorial technique. The present work thus stands as a remarkable example of Richter’s inimitable conceptual abilities as a painter, as well as the profoundly reflective and deliberate character of his practice.
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