"Landscape is so beautiful. It is probably the most terrific thing there is." (the artist cited in 'Interview with Rolf Gunther Dienst, 1970' in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, Massachusetts 1995, p. 64)
Teyde-Landschaft is one of the most intensely captivating, thought-provoking and stunningly beautiful of all Gerhard Richter's forays into landscape painting. Executed in 1971, the year that he was appointed to the faculty of the Düsseldorf Academy in recognition of the place he had carved for himself in the burgeoning German art scene, it is a vision of the sublime and a reminder of the magnificence of our world. Unabashedly beautiful, it is nonetheless an iconoclastic artistic statement and arguably one of his most eloquent manifestos on his doctrine of painting.
Mining the rich seem of ambiguity between painting and photography, between 1966 and 1971 Richter's hitherto homogenous Pop style started to diversify as he started to excavate the history of painting. In this fertile period of creative discovery, a spectrum of ostensibly antithetical but conceptually linked modes of painting evolved. At one extreme he painted his first Colour Charts, the Farbtafel paintings, which, refuting the lofty ideals of abstract colour theorists such as Josef Albers, mechanically reproduced industrial paint charts in an unpainterly, minimalist aesthetic. At an almost paradoxical extreme of subject-matter, Richter also began making landscapes with his loosely brushed, grisaille Alpen series in 1968 and a suite of small paintings based on snapshots of Corsica, painted in 1969. These delicately brushed, overtly picturesque landscapes reach their resolved zenith in the early 1970s with a group including the present work.
With its radiating beam of sunlight that silently breaks the clouds in a dazzling, illusionistic depiction of a cloud filled sky, Teyde-Landschaft doubtless evokes the drama laden beauty of the German Romantic tradition. "We haven't yet left Romanticism behind us. The paintings from that period are still part of our sensibility" Richter said in 1973 (the artist cited in Irmeline Lebeer, 'Gerhard Richter ou la Réalité de l'Image' in Chronique de l'Art Vivant, no. 36, February 1973, p. 16). Richter studied in Dresden, the home of one of the most extensive collections of Caspar David Friedrich paintings, and not surprisingly he was heavily influenced by the older artist's work which epitomised the transcendental nature of the Romantic movement. In Teyde-Landschaft, the incredible luminosity that Richter achieves in his handling of light echoes the sublime aura intrinsic to the Romanticist conception of light as the emanation of God's spirit.
Departing from his grisaille technique which had become his trademark in the 1960s, Richter here introduces a limited palette of warm russets, punctuated with intense azure accents, which transposes the expressivity of Friedrich into a new register. Richter states: "I can express my intention - what I want to make or to show, and why I like landscape so much - far better in colour". ('Interview with Rolf Gunther Dienst, 1970' in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, Massachusetts 1995, p. 64). Unlike the choppy brushstrokes of the Alpen series, Richter here creates a more nuanced surface, gently feathering the paint in a virtuoso display of paint handling. With flawless execution, the flat, translucent paint film dissolves the solidity of the landscape, achieving a subtlety of modulation normally only achievable with watercolour. Eliding forms and easing transitions, he unifies the surface in a more or less even spread of sumptuous pigment.
When asked in 1970 why he painted landscapes, Richter somewhat disingenuously replied "I felt like painting something beautiful". (Ibid., p.64). Certainly in Teyde-Landschaft he demonstrates an astute appreciation of the beauty of nature. However, despite their ostensibly uncontroversial appearance, particularly when compared to the more radical Colour Chart paintings, the landscapes could not have been more provocative. At the time in Germany, Pop was ceding its sovereignty to Minimalism and Richter, both the master and confounder of historical genres, was alone in vanguard circles for daring to paint a holiday souvenir photograph and promote landscape as a subject worthy of entering the elite discourse on avant-garde art practice.
Despite its serene appearances, however, Teyde-Landschaft is as polemical as the Colour Charts, demonstrating the same critical detachment but in a more lyrical register. Richter's entire painterly enterprise engages art historical paradigms in a self-referential scheme in which photography plays a mediating role. From the early 1960s, Richter collated images from newspapers, family snapshots as well as his photographs of the landscape which combine to form his Atlas. From the hundreds of photographs of landscape, Richter selected very few to transform into paintings. By painting from a photograph - a readymade - Richter achieves a critical distance between himself and his subject that extends between his viewer and the subject. Just as Friedrich worked from small plein air nature studies, Richter enlarges the amateur photograph to grand scale. Rather like Sigmar Polke's iconic raster-bild technique, through enlargement Richter exaggerates the faults in the photographic medium, exposing its inadequacies as a mechanical shorthand for the act of looking. It is precisely this self-conscious pairing of photography with painterly illusionism that structures the artist's relationship to his historical predecessors. Working from a photograph, Richter dispels the Romantic conception of nature as a manifestation of the sublime existing beyond quotidian experience, pointing instead to the chemical and mechanical processes of photography as mediator. By replicating the effects of photography - such as the arbitrary cropping, the lack of variation of focus and the blur of an unsteady hand - Richter creates tension between the dispassionate, un-romantic effects of the contemporary medium and his deliberate historicism. His sfumato technique dispels any sense of melodrama and precludes empathy on behalf of the viewer, enhancing instead our awareness of the inadequacy of the painted and photographic mediums to render lived experience. Lost in the painterly time of the canvas itself, in Teyde-Landschaft we are caught questioning the very nature of representation.
Oil on canvas
120 by 180cm. 47 1/4 by 70 7/8 in.
Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, German Pavilion, XXXVI Biennale Internazionale dell'Arte, Gerhard Richter, 1972, p. 71, no. 283, illustrated
Jürgen Harten, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1962-1985, Cologne 1986, p. 124 & 377, no. 283, illustrated (incorrectly numbered)
Angelika Thill, et al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné, 1962-1993, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, Vol. III, no. 283, illustrated in colour (incorrectly numbered)
Acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner in the early 1970s