Nancy Nesvet

Gerhard Richter

The Segantini Museum, Nietzsche Haus and Hauser and Wirth Gallery in San Moritz, in the Upper Engadin, Switzerland, comprise the three-venue current exhibition of work by Gerhard Richter titled Gerhard Richter: Engadin. Photographs, paintings, and photographs overpainted with oil and lacquer paint surround a sphere reflecting the surrounding work and the mountains beyond the gallery. Richter’s work in this exhibit continues his long-standing practice of appropriating and making photographs, then expunging, covering up details in the photograph, making clear his denial of his role in the photographed historic documentary moment, while always leaving a vestige or more of the original photograph. In these paintings and overpainted photographs at Engadin he adds joyous color, autumnal linear marks made with a technological squeegee process original to Richter, and fields of white, resembling snow, perhaps unintentionally but definitely illustrating and alluding to current environmental politics impacting this glacial area.
Gerhard Richter, born in Dresden in 1932, trained as an artist in the DGR (Democratic German Republic) illustrating East German political dogma. Upon escaping to the west, Dusseldorf, to attend art school, and embarking on a career that attempted to illustrate his disassociation with the identity that people assigned to him based on his childhood and family history, he created work that pointed out and challenged false assumptions about him and questioned fake news. This questioning of propagandist media, his place within it and importantly, others’ perception of him, resulted in his producing visual media to portray his truth. A “dialectical self-dissolution of myth”, as Adorno wrote in a letter to Walter Benjamin, resulted, in Richter’s hands, in deconstructing the history and content that Richter’s society viewed in state-supported documentary media, reconstructing and often negating it in his paintings. His refusal to annihilate the photographic image and his insistence on leaving documentary objective origins literally blurring the margins between painting and photography create his hybridization of painting and photography as a formal conceit marking an evolutionary development in the history of painting. Continuing to obfuscate by overpainting, hiding, or eliminating parts of the painting, he combines media documentation, memory, and emotion to question society’s view of reality and consequently, society’s view of him.
In the overpainted Sils imagery, the photograph memorializing a mountain or place, then overpainted with Richter’s marks births a new language of imagery, describing nature to entice a public but also to warn of impending destruction of that natural landscape. In his reinterpretation of the documentary photographic image into painting or overpainting, including his face confronting the viewer, in Val Fex (1992), he manipulates and overpaints the photograph to show his own reality, his view, begging the viewer to see it.
By the 1970’s, Richter painted landscapes from photographs, conceding that, as noted by Dieter Schwarz in the introductory essay for Gerhard Richter Engadin, Richter’s landscapes were “not only about beauty, nostalgia, romanticism, or classicism, like some paradise lost.” Photographs from hikes in Sils over several years were included in Dezember, curated by Alexander Kluge in 2010, featuring variations on a pine motif. An exhibition displayed hundreds of photos from Richter’s Album at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 2002. Having faded over time, but therefore marking the photograph as a remnant of the past, as opposed to a painting produced on site in the present, the memories from the Album are justifiably blurry, as in 3.04.08. After 1998, he photographed the Upper Engadin in color, adding impasto and highly textured, colored oil-lacquer paint to the photographs, varying from white and one additional color to multi-colored layers, linking memory with present observation and emotion. Lake Sils, Silsersee shows Richter’s overpainting using the squeegee or brushing a swath or blob of paint in the image’s foreground, never extending it to the painting’s edge. Never fully obliterating the documentary photograph maintains the viewer’s consciousness and memory of the photograph, veracity of the image and relation to the painter’s and the viewer’s present reality, merging present and past, abstract and representational, technology with emotion and handwork. Here, in the work at “Engadin”, Richter hybridizes form and content, memory, or media document, acknowledging the final and current form more important, more “real”, than the blurred and faded memory of past media.
By overpainting and eliminating parts of the photograph, Richter has little allegiance to the original photograph, instilling his own meaning. In Piz Surlej, Piz Rosatsch, mountains descend from the top of the painting, with peaks at the bottom of the Piz. Others, shown in the exhibition resemble spring flowering plants climbing the hillside (3.3.08) or phantasmagorical aquatic beings floating in photographed water“(7.4.08). Greens, oranges, and blues of 12.1.89 are not fire, but rather autumnal magnificence, not overpowering the mountains but blending in with them. Val Fex, Piz Chaputschin, (1992) has me skiing across the mountain of horizontal marks along with Richter’s brush and squeegee. A cloud of snow overpowers the sunset lit clouds in Silsersee/Lake Sils, Piz Lunghin. He knows and records the marks and rhythm of skiing the mountains. The experimentation is remarkable, the sense of humor joyous. He has even included himself in this mountainous scenery, as in Val Fex 1992, where a sun glassed Richter wears a hat of ski marked snow (making him a snow man?). It is a rare auto portrait, with Richter acknowledging his place in these mountains, Richter has clearly found joy in the mountains, manipulating his practice to accommodate and highlight the beauty he has photographed while creating a formal abstraction.
Richter has sometimes been included in the Pop Art school of painting, the corroboration of which is in these somewhat commercialized photographic landscapes of Sils, rendering the landscape beautiful and inviting. There is even an allusion to the commercialization of the sport of skiing and to the branding displayed in Pop Art in the clearly marked Burton snowboard in 4.2.92. Yet there is a dark side. Richter depicts the romantic, endangered beauty of the mountains of the Upper Engadin rather than the propaganda of the travel brochure, by overpainting, questioning the ever-present and future beauty of the Upper Engadin landscape. We could group him with the Romantics, as the overpainted photographs and paintings present beauty but also foreboding, and due to current environmental hazards, illustrate the possibility of impending destruction of the Upper Engadin. Although photographs fade, Richter does not let us forget. He paints the image and overpaints the photograph for all time, Serving as a memory of the past when the photograph was taken, and for the present and future, as a warning of environmental change due to global warming. By overpainting, erasing parts of the Upper Engadin landscape, and appearing as avalanches of white snow bearing down on the land, Richter shows, intentionally or not, that if humankind continues its present environmentally destructive path, the mountains and the beauty of the Upper Engadin may not remain forever. Our present environment challenges and the fragility of glacial mountain ranges have become political issues, but it is Richter’s politics, born of the love for these mountains, not politics imposed on him.

© Gerhard Richter: 4.2.92 (8.9 x 12.6 cms)

In the catalogue to Gerhard Richter, Engadin Dieter Schwarz’s wrote that Richter’s pictures painted from photographs reveal his (Richter’s) “yearning”, whereas the abstract paintings show my (Richter’s) reality. Richter, yearning for the beautiful landscape of the Upper Engadin creates an image memorializing and illustrating that yearned for image. It is not a technological exploration of color and layering of paint as in the abstract squeegee paintings, but rather an emotional, Romantic appreciation for a place he longs for. In Engadin, Richter reveals himself an artist yearning for a place, painting what he loves and yearns for.
We cannot escape noting Richter’s location, Sils, where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, describing the eternal recurrence, historical events and political issues repeating. Hans Ulrich Obrist, in his introduction to Gerhard Richter Sils, quotes Nietzsche:
“If we think this thought in its most terrible form: existence such as it is, without meaning and goal, but recurring unavoidable without a finale into nothingness: the eternal recurrence.” That eternal recurrence. was written about by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, while in Sils Maria in the Upper Engadin during warm summers from 1881-8. Obrist continues: “He saw himself as a herald of a new breed of philosophical ‘free spirits’ who would refuse to prop up comforting dogmas. Instead, they would act as pitiless interrogators of human thought and behavior”. Another free spirit, in this same place, having been read Thus Spoke Zaratrustra by his erudite mother, is Richter.
Richter has sought to disengage himself from politics over his lifetime, trying to express his point of view, disassociating himself from politics others attached to him. But the environmental politics of our current era has found him, and coalesced his painting and overpainting with politics that he might finally agree with and personalize. The Hudson River School artists celebrated the majesty of the Catskill mountains of the Appalachian range as did painters of mountains and vistas of the American West. Emphasizing the power of those who sought to tame that wilderness, ultimately own it, and perhaps ruin it, to recognition of present-day global warming causing glaciers to fall into the sea, raising the ocean’s level, endangering all of us, environmental politics is illustrated. Richter can only hope to convince us to pay attention and value what we have and may lose, proclaiming truth against propaganda, using his art to save his beautiful Upper Engadin.