"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. Painting is the making of an analogy for something nonvisual and incomprehensible: giving it form and bringing it within reach"
Gerhard Richter, 'Notes 1981', The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, pp. 98-99
"Going into the ice could be interpreted as longing for a place where one feels safe – just so long as there is no life, only ice."
The artist cited in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago and London, 2009, p. 203
At once forbidding and desolate yet alluring and sublime: remote and uninhabitable yet an ideal of serenity, Gerhard Richter's work Eis of 1981 is the definitive paragon of this revered master's epoch-defining canon of landscape painting. The breathtaking beauty of the mist-enshrouded frozen seascape is exactly matched by the tranquil dexterity of its painterly execution. The rendition of technique is simply thrilling as grisaille suffusions and thousands of tonal adjustments constantly manipulate focus. The awesome methodological mastery of pigment suspension and infinite variations in the subtlest of hues is truly transcendent. The arctic atmosphere emanates luminescence without betraying a specific source or direction of light. The result is a mesmeric and vaguely hypnotic twilight, neither dawn nor dusk but rather a glowing semi-lightness entirely characteristic of the polar latitudes. This indistinct mood is further compounded by nebulous cloud and mist effects and the inconsistent resolution inevitably derivative of the source photograph. Richter relays these indeterminate layers with a consummate exhibition of sfumato brushwork: he breathes life into the image via fractional tonal scumbling and by expertly infusing the canvas with minute variances of colour. Within the tonal drama of the composition, films of mauve pinks are mirrored in the sky and sea as frozen turquoises of the ice itself are reflected in the still crystalline water. In concert this chromatic display forms a symphonic whole, perpetually resonating in shimmering equilibrium. As with his venerated cycle of Seascapes, the viewpoint here of both artist and viewer is not made explicit. Whereas Claude Monet's treatment of a similar subject at Bennecourt indicates a foreground riverbank that cites our shared perspective on terra firma, Richter's compositional framing projects us immediately into the sensation of the natural environment.
To parallel so many traits of Richter's epic canon, here it is the subject itself that is beyond categorisation. A vista of ever-adjusting and interchangeable sea and ice, the arctic expanse is neither landscape nor seascape. The scene includes no sign of life or, indeed, indication that this is even an earthly environment. The singularly foreign nature of this panorama provides the artist with the opportunity to report faithfully a reality that is temporary and unobtainable to the spectator. In choosing such an inaccessible subject Richter subtly acknowledges the functionary heritage of landscape painting when, in an age before photography, the practice provided the only accurate accounts of distant topographies to uninitiated audiences. However, it is of course precisely because Richter works so diligently from the photograph, in this instance one that he had taken nine years prior to the making of this painting, which marks Eis as so spectacularly innovative.
In 1972 Richter had embarked on a trip to Greenland, originally having intended to be accompanied by his friend Hanne Darboven, but eventually journeying alone. His explicit intention was to experience and record the desolate arctic landscape following the inspiration of his greatest art historical forebear: "I wanted to take photos in the mode of Caspar David Friedrich's The Wreck of Hope. The whole thing was a project." (Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago and London, 2009, p. 202). Painted in Dresden in 1823-4, Friedrich's work, also known as The Sea of Ice, was an unusually large canvas for the artist, envisaging William Edward Parry's ship Griper trapped in the ice as it charted the then unprecedented Northwest Passage in 1820. Since 1905 the painting has been held by the Hamburg Kunsthalle, which provided ample opportunity for Richter to study it when he a guest professor in the art academy there in 1967.
Richter's journey to Greenland provided conditions in which he, as solitary traveller and twentieth-century equivalent to Friedrich's Wanderer in the Sea of Fog, could confront the omnipresent preoccupations of his artistic career. His surrounding physical environment there invited deep contemplation on the tradition of landscape painting, the depiction of Nature and the legacy of Romanticism. The means of his "project's" execution, the camera, afforded reflection on the paradoxical simultaneity of subjectivity and objectivity inherent to the photographed image, as well as attendant themes of visual perception and cognition. Moreover the parameters of his self-enforced solitude inevitably provoked consideration of the inescapable effect of his own personal biography to the development of his art.
Indeed, this final fixation has been taken by Richter's biographer, Dietmar Elger as the primary catalyst for Eis. Discussing Friedrich's The Wreck of Hope, he has claimed: "What Richter saw reflected in the painting, however, was his own state of mind", and explained that at the time Richter's marriage was in crisis: "the photographs he took in Greenland were visual analogues for his own failed hopes. He was exhausted by the struggle to find his own way as a husband and father, and felt that his dream domestic happiness had, as a consequence, been wrecked" (Ibid., p.203). Indeed, the artist has recently admitted that the reclusion of his polar exodus instilled a psychosomatic retreat from his life in Dusseldorf: "The project was also an excuse for getting away...Trouble in my marriage was reaching a climax. Going into the ice could be interpreted as longing for a place where one feels safe – just so long as there is no life, only ice." (the artist cited in Ibid.). Eventually, Richter's marriage to Ema collapsed and they divorced in 1981. Thereafter he returned to the Greenland photographs and painted Eis, perceived by Elger as an attempt "to work through his unfulfilled hope for familial happiness and to take final stock a difficult period in his life" (Ibid., p. 208).
Such an analytic framework provides ready interpretation of Eis as a metaphor for the artist's situation at that time, and perhaps even as a meditative allusion to self-portraiture. As fragments broken away from a glacier or ice shelf, icebergs become isolated as the consequence of stress and rupture, and thereafter drift through their inevitable dissolution and demise back into water. Indeed, Eis can be viewed within the thematic arc of what Mark Godfrey terms Richter's "Damaged Landscapes", encompassing both physical properties of destruction, such as aerial views of bombed cities and stormy seas; as well as an emotional charge that speaks of a wilderness period that the artist has described as: "that time I lost the ground under my feet" (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011-12, p. 73).
However, to interpret this masterwork solely through the interpretative prism of the artist's biography would be a severe injustice to the major artistic advancements it also represents within the oeuvre of Gerhard Richter. Clearly Eis self-evidently confronts the canonical traditions of German Romanticism, and is a late twentieth-century response to the beautified landscape. However, Richter has in fact accurately recorded the visual information of a photograph, thus bypassing the vagaries of subjective interpretation and adhering to his maxim that: "The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its way of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source" (Gerhard Richter, 'Notes, 1964-1965', The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 31). Whereas Romanticism prescribed an ontological philosophy concerning humanity's conditioning by Nature, photography captures a transient moment with "no style, no concept, no judgement" (the artist cited in: Peter Sager, 'Mit der Farbe denken', Zeitmagazin 49, 28th November 1986, p. 33). Indeed, Roald Nasgaard has described how Richter's employment of photographs "rescued him from the burden of inherited tradition, and from the alternative traps of the prevailing aesthetics and ideologies around him" (Exhibtion Catalogue, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, and travelling, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988-89, p. 40). Dependent upon aperture exposure and shutter speed, the photograph is correlated to a finite length of time: as propounded by Robert Storr, "Conceptually, Roland Barthes's definition of the photographic condition as "the that has been" of experiential reality is once again germane. These vistas never were and never will be there for us; they were there for the artist just as long as it took to snap the picture and are only available to him now through the combination of that imperfect documentation and his equally imperfect memory" (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 67). Moreover, in the case of Eis Richter has transferred the imagery of a postcard-sized photograph to a metre's width of canvas, approximately a forty-five-fold magnification, thereby expanding visual information to create a vision not quite consonant with actual ocular experience and positing vital queries about the realities of visual perception and cognition.
Finally, Richter's Eis, as surely as any photo-based work in his entire illustrious oeuvre, testifies to the incontrovertible centrality of landscape as the salient genre through which, for more than half a century, he has grappled with the monolithic precedent of Art History. In 1973, one year after his Greenland expedition, Richter wrote "A painting by Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is "good," it concerns us – transcending ideology – as art that we ostentatiously defend (perceive, show, make). Therefore, 'today' we can paint as Caspar David Friedrich did" (p. 174). Thus Eis should be considered not just in the art historical era of the later Twentieth Century, but also in the tier of masterpieces that transcend their temporal boundaries and become truly timeless.
In the course of recent human history perceptions of Nature have shifted radically. Landscapes learned on foot by medieval monks and renaissance artisans inspired the backdrops for devotional art objects, and specific contemporary topographies became enlisted as contextual environments for famous scenes of religious narratives: Adam and Eve were apparently lost in Dutch woodlands while Christ traversed the hills of Tuscany. Not only did this innovation represent the authors' interpretation of imagined stories, but it also manifest the desires of patrons to associate the transience of their present-day success with the immortality of the sacred domain. As human migration increased, foreign landscapes became more universally familiar, and the conception of Nature was no longer limited to personal experience. The onset of the industrial age brought with it a reactionary yearning for the canvas of pure Nature. Unblemished by chimney stack, mine head, or engine smoke, pastoral fantasies provided an alluring escape to bucolic abandon. In the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries landscapes further became metaphors for modes of human existence and broader socio-political ideas, frequently charged with didactic undercurrents: the ancient noble forest, the plough-furrowed earth, the vast expansive plain.
While today such a précis may seem extraneous to the ceaselessly innovative contemporary work of Gerhard Richter, it is perhaps revealing to remember that at the beginning of his career, between 1951 and 1956, his art was developed under the aegis of Socialist Realism at the Dresden Art Academy in East Germany, where the curriculum also included Russian, economics and politics. Here the purpose of art was forcefully conscripted to programmatic ends, and the scope of creative potential limited: Richter's output at the end of five years of study included monumental murals for the German Hygiene Museum, the Socialist Unity Party regional headquarters, and a fantastical scene for a nursery school. Within this context, Richter's earliest encounters with the painting of Caspar David Friedrich at the Pillnitz museum, just outside Dresden, and in the Gemäldegalerie in Dahlem during rare excursions to West Berlin, inevitably precipitated a profound and enduring reaction. Eis embodies the zenith of that response, and precisely because it both defines the vanguard of contemporary discourse on the possibilities of painting and simultaneously communes with the grand precedent of tradition, it stands as a remarkable achievement of recent Art History.
Oil on canvas
Milan, Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Gerhard Richter, 1982, n. p., illustrated
Dusseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; Berlin, Nationalgalerie Berlin; Bern, Kunsthalle Bern; Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst/ Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Gerhard Richter; Bilder/ Painting 1962-1984, 1986, p. 248, illustrated
Essen, Kunstverein Ruhr, Gerhard Richter und die Romantik, 1994, p. 29, illustrated in colour
70 by 100cm. 27 1/2 by 39 3/8 in.
Jürgen Harten, Gerhard Richter, Bilder 1962 – 1985, Cologne 1986, p. 248, no. 476-1, illustrated
Angelika Thill, et al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonne 1962 – 1993, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, Vol III, no. 476-1, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Munich, Haus der Kunst, Der Geist der Romantik in der deutschen Kunst 1790-1990, 1995, p. 455, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, Dusseldorf, K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Gerhard Richter, 2005, p. 31, illustrated in colour
Galerie Konrad Fischer, Dusseldorf
Collection Dr. Wolfgang Weber, Cologne
Galerie Kewenig, Cologne
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner