A review by Roderick Coyne
This book, devoted specifically to the landscape painting of Gerhard Richter is comprehensively illustrated and supported by three informative essays. The abstract painting and other projects of this multi-layered artist, are not treated directly, but serve as a context in which Richter’s career long concern for landscape, is explored. Richter’s puzzling statement “If the abstract paintings show my reality, then the landscapes and still lives show my yearning” is twice quoted in the text. As is suggested, yearning and nostalgia bear a strong family resemblance, albeit they stand back to back.
At an exhibition of Richter’s photo-based work, the uncertain viewer will advance to the picture surface to try and establish just what he or she is looking at; a painting or a photograph? To the practised eye, close study will reveal evidence of the canvas surface and the texture of oil paint. (However with some of Richter’s works, the practised eye and certainly the unpractised eye, will still be left in some doubt). But with the reproductions in this book, no amount of close scrutiny of the page will be of any assistance, as of course the painted surface has now been translated to the photographic surface intrinsic to the technology of publishing. Publishing photographs of Richter’s paintings, which in turn were modelled on photographs, creates an unintentional paradox for the reader of this book.
The project that Richter set himself of painstakingly painting an image that as closely as possible resembles a photographic print, simultaneously questions the status of both what a painting is and what a photograph is. Our habitual response to a picture that looks like one of Richter’s landscape paintings is to automatically align it with our consumption of photographic imagery, rather than with our consumption of painting.
How radical a project is this? At face value such an enterprise would seem to be destined to result in a body of work, that no matter how skilfully executed, would be little more than a collection of banal photo-realist illustrations. However, there is a subversive element to Richter’s project, which lies partly in the nature of the photographs he uses as models. These tend to be his own snapshots, which embody some of the technical imperfections of much amateur photography; absence of depth gained through foreground framing, lack of depth of field and sharp focus, horizons that aren’t parallel and a crude and/or limited palette.
The resulting paintings achieve a compelling presence both through the aggrandisement of the snapshot by the increase in scale and through fidelity to the snapshot’s technical shortcomings. The subtle blurring of detail, deftly gives rise to a greater verisimilitude to the photographic original than it does to the scene that the photograph depicts. One cardinal distinction between a photograph and a painting depicting the same scene, is the fact that the photograph is incapable of selecting which features to include; it is by definition inclusive. Richter achieves some of his success in his painting by hinting at this inclusiveness, while simultaneously exercising the sort of control over his work that any painter would deploy. In an interview quoted in Dietmar Elgar’s essay in the book, Richter says “But I needed the greater objectivity of the photograph in order to correct my own way of seeing; for instance, if I draw an object from nature, I start to stylise and to change it in accordance with my personal vision and my training. But if I paint from a photograph, I can forget all the criteria that I get from these sources. I can paint against my will, as it were.” Later in his essay Elgar goes on to say that “Richter’s paintings work precisely because they transfer the fixed moment in the photograph into the timelessness of painting. The situation documented in the photographic original and bound to a topographical situation thus transcends the painting to become a placeless experience of Nature.”
As is made much of in the text, the Romantic tradition of Caspa David Friedrich haunts much of this work, but unlike Friedrich’s paintings, Richter’s painting depicts not an idealised transcendental landscape, but a landscape that the viewer feels he or she has either already experienced or could experience; nostalgia and yearning.
Edited by Dietmar Elger,
Texts by Hubertus Butin, Oskar Bätschmann, Dietmar Elger
Graphic design by Christoph Steinegger
2011. 176 pp., 82 color ills - 31.20 x 26.60 cm clothbound