Achieving an unprecedented synthesis of the painterly and the photographic, Gerhard Richter’s Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) propels viewers into a perceptual limbo, challenging them to evaluate the impact of images on their understanding of the world. Executed in 1968, the present work testifies to the enduring technical genius and comprehensive reach of Richter’s prodigious oeuvre; thrumming under the spell of a smoky haze, the enigmatic composition achieves a captivating collapse between the radical abstraction of the artist’s revered Abstrakte Bilder and the haunting nostalgia of his Photo Paintings, succinctly encapsulating the artist’s unprecedented aesthetic investigation of visual perception. Though landscapes comprise a large portion of the acclaimed early body of Photo Paintings, however, the subject of a moonscape is exceptionally rare; Mondlandschaft II (Moonscape II) (1968), the only other known example of a moonscape in Richter’s oeuvre, resides in the collection of Kunstmuseum Bonn in Germany. As testament to Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I)'s superb quality, it was selected for inclusion in the 1969 Düsseldorfer Szene exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Luzern. Held in the same esteemed private collection for over four decades, Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) affirms Richter’s status as one of the great masters of Contemporary painting and bespeaks his extraordinary ability to convey the ethos of his cultural moment. In terms particularly evocative of the present work, Richter boldly asserts his personal philosophy on visual perception: “You do not see less by looking at a field out of focus through a magnifying glass.” (Gerhard Richter in Fred Jahn, Gerhard Richter Atlas, Munich, 1989, p. 202)
Invoking specific visual reference within the artist’s signature, idiosyncratic blurred brushwork, Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) combines the aesthetic realms of painting and photography in a powerful invocation of its particular historical moment. In its depiction of the craggy surface of the moon, the present work invokes the fervent focus upon the Space Race of the 1960s—the battle for technological victory in outer space between Russia and the United States—a proxy of Cold War antagonism, which captured the attention and imagination of viewers worldwide. With the rise of mass media, images of moon landings and astronautical feats flooded the collective consciousness; Richter’s source image for Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I)—which he first incorporated into Atlas (1962-2013), his massive, documentarian-like assemblage of photographs and newspaper clippings—came from Stern, the widely popular, weekly German magazine. Richter’s decision to appropriate the popularized image of an iconic subject reflects his singular examination of the impact of photography on the history of art. With the rapid development of photographic technology over the course of the twentieth-century, many feared that “painting [had] suffered a loss of relevance.” (Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 1: Nos. 1-198, 1962-1968, Berlin, 2011, p. 17) Capturing a definitive image of the cultural zeitgeist within an explicitly painterly composition, Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) testifies to Richter’s unique status as the history painter of his generation.
Rendering the roughened lunar craters with delicate specificity, Richter’s Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) places viewers in imminent contact with a terrain that few people, even to this day, have ever experienced firsthand. By cropping the source image, and foreshortening, its perspective; viewers can almost feel the moon’s imperceptible surface. Richter’s deft sfumato softens the rigidity of the moon’s rockiness, creating a hazy sea of uncertain texture. His dramatic blur and low-contrast grisaille—signature characteristics of his Photo Paintings—produce the illusion of lush snowy mounds or thick, misty clouds that swirl across the canvas. Describing the distinctive blur of Richter’s Photo Paintings, Robert Storr writes: “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.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 42) Storr’s likening the images to the limitations of television underscores the centrality of technology’s impact on perception to Richter’s oeuvre. Art historian Dietmar Elger characterizes Richter’s Photo Paintings, like Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I), as possessing photographic qualities: “[Richter] transfers specific media characteristics—primarily those ascribed to documentary or amateur photography—to his paintings: objectivity, authenticity, illusionism, and the renunciation of artistic composition.” (Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 1: Nos. 1-198, 1962-1968, Berlin, 2011, p. 18) Rather than imaging technological changes in Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I), Richter reproduces their effects. He toys with viewers’ perception, embodying the notion that he “no more trusts technology to aid in achieving a better position from which to view the world than he does painterly techniques. He simply places both on the same level.” (Gertrud Koch, “The Richter-Scale of Blur,” October, Vol. 62, 1992, p. 137) By copying a photographic genre which itself borrowed compositional elements from the traditions of painting, Richter enacts a profound destabilization of the narratives of representation and the modes of viewing that can be accepted for their veracity.
Arresting in its beauty, and striking in its technical precision, Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) synthesizes emerging Pop Art impulses with the historical legacy of German Romanticism. The early 1960s marked a turning point in Richter’s career: fleeing from Soviet-occupied East Germany to West Germany in March of 1961, he became exposed to the explosion of Western mass media and the burgeoning Pop Art movement. Richter identified Andy Warhol as a particular influence, given their mutual infatuation with “glossy magazines” and the interplay between mechanization and hand-painting: “[Warhol] legitimized the mechanical...He did it with silkscreening and photography, and I did it through mechanical wiping.” (Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 1: Nos. 1-198, 1962-1968, Berlin, 2011, p. 15) In Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I), Richter produces a mechanical wiping by delicately “feathering the paint”—“the antithesis of the forceful and heartfelt expressionist gesture” critical to the Abstract Expressionist painting which reigned supreme as the artistic mode of the day. (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 43) In its quasi-apocalyptic rendering of the lunar landscape, the luminescent surface of Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) instead calls to mind the vast and glorious realms of German Romanticism, invoking the desolate terrains of Caspar David Friedrich’s Abbey in the Oakwood or Monk by the Sea. Unlike his predecessor, however, Richter abandons the device of human figures or structures, instead plunging the viewer directly into the variegated grisaille tones of his shadowy moonscape. Storr writes: “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.” (Ibid., p. 53) Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) builds on the legacy of German Romanticism through a uniquely contemporary lens, one which situates the work at the nexus of technological advancement, radical shifts in contemporary art, and groundbreaking moments in human history. A phantasmagoric and breathtakingly ethereal fusion of abstraction and photo-realism, Mondlandschaft I (Moonscape I) provides a superb encapsulation of Richter’s pioneering investigation of the visual world.
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