‘When I seek another word for music I never find any other word than Venice'
‘... [the] landscapes are bereft of human life. The artist looks for and finds only loneliness. Here, as in the earlier candle paintings, the artistic mechanism of subjective appropriation and thematic displacement comes into play. Richter explores his own state of mind through a visual metaphor that he can examine from an art-historical distance’
Reproduced on the cover of Gerhard Richter’s first Catalogue Raisonné, Gerhard Richter’s Venedig (Insel) (Venice (Island)), with undulating rivulets of impasto carving ripples into its glassy surface, is a sublime eulogy to the shining, sun-kissed waters that form a shimmering gateway to Venice. Reflecting the vast expanse of sky above, bathed in the warm, iridescent glow of twilight, they mark the grand entrance to the floating city, which lies tantalisingly beyond view around the corner of the island. It is a viewpoint known to all those who have approached the city by boat, yet one that few have chosen to paint. Executed in 1985, just two years after Richter’s landmark photorealist series of Candles and Skulls, Venedig (Insel) is the first within a series of five paintings on the subject of Venice, examples of which are held in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden. Based on one of Richter’s own photographs, taken in 1983 during a visit to the city with his wife, the work’s halcyon vista is rendered with immaculate hyper-realism, reproducing in high fidelity the shifting layers of focus embedded in the original snapshot. Though ostensibly an act of homage to the great artists who sought to capture the glory of Venice – from Canaletto and J. M. W. Turner to Lucio Fontana – Richter’s panorama is in fact a subversive commentary on the act of painting itself. As we approach the work, its scenic expanse dissolves before our eyes, leaving us to stare at an impenetrable mass of meticulous feathered brushstrokes. Undermining the perceived authority of photography by rigorously mimicking its appearance in paint, the work proposes that nothing – neither brush nor camera – can bridge the gap between the viewer and reality. Just as the ethereal glow of the Candle paintings became a kind of memento mori, so too do Richter’s gleaming Venetian waters – one of art history’s most enshrined subjects – mourn a loss of faith in art as a window onto the world. Like the city itself, the work’s reality lies just out of reach.
The Venedig works are situated at the peak of Richter’s conceptual engagement with painting. It was during the 1980s that the relationship between the photorealist and abstract strands of his practice came to a head, after nearly two decades of negotiation between the two poles. Within a practice devoted to probing the relationship between reality and its representation, Richter claimed that there was fundamentally no distinction between the truth-claims of photography and the alternative ways of seeing proposed by his painterly abstractions. Whilst the early 1980s saw the first tentative explorations of the squeegee – a tool that afforded him an unprecedented level of creative freedom – it was during this period that Richter also produced some of his finest photo-paintings. During the previous decade, the greyscale portraits of his early practice had been replaced by vast, expansive technicolour vistas – cloudscapes, seascapes and mountainscapes – that both invoked and critiqued the German Romantic tradition. As the 1980s dawned, the Candles and Skulls brought a new dimension to his practice, looking back further to nature morte motifs and transforming them into poignant expressions of painting’s lost innocence. In these works, as with the Venedig paintings, Richter amplified his dialogue with abstraction by progressively effacing later images from the series with fluid, gestural brushstrokes in bright, incongruous colours. In doing so, he brought the two modes into closer conversation than ever before, suggesting that his free-flowing abstract marks were just as much of a plausible reality as the painstakingly rendered brushstrokes beneath them. The present work is one of only three purely photorealist works within the Venedig series, which become progressively more blurred before succumbing to abstract overpainting in the final two examples.
The mid-1980s brought about a period of great professional triumph for Richter, who had married the artist Isa Genzken in 1982. Richter’s gallerist Rudolf Zwirner offered the couple a large studio space in Cologne, and Gerhard Richter with the present lot, circa 1985. Photo: Studio Gerhard Richter. © Gerhard Richter 2018 (06022018). the two artists left Dusseldorf behind them – a move that propelled Richter’s rise to international acclaim. In 1986, the year after the present painting, Richter was granted his first major touring retrospective at the Städtisches Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, comprising 133 works, which subsequently travelled to the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, the Kunsthalle Bern and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna. The critics’ reaction cemented his growing reputation as one of the leading artists of his generation: according to Dietmar Elger, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung named him ‘one of the most interesting skeptics and tacticians of doubt’, whilst Der Spiegel asserted that ‘No one else has explored the potential of painting in an age of mass photography in as coolly engaged and intelligent a manner as he has, or has been as tough and ready to experiment as he is’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 264).
The glass-like, reflective depths of the present work, created through a series of meticulous strokes that comb the pigment into softly-crested waves, may be seen to relate not only to Richter’s 1969 series of Seestücke (Seascapes), but also to the Spiegel (Mirror) paintings he produced in the early 1980s. In their attempts to capture the surface of a mirror, these works embody Richter’s conceptual outlook during this period: ‘This [Spiegel] is the only picture that always looks different’, he explained. ‘And perhaps there’s an allusion somewhere to the fact that every picture is a Mirror’ (G. Richter, quoted by C. Morineau, ‘The Blow-Up, Primary Colours and Duplications’, in M Godfrey and N. Serota (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., Tate Modern., 2011, p. 132). The present work may be understood in relation to this notion: the carefully-constructed artifice of its surface is riddled with layers of mirroring – from the reflection of the island, to the way the application of paint mimics the water itself, to Richter’s conscious reproduction of the camera’s distortions. Like a mirror, the surface is hermetic: an impeccably-woven sheen that continually deflects the viewer, returning them to their own physical reality and prohibiting any sense of immersive depth. The world depicted in Venedig (Insel) remains perpetually out of reach: the closer we get to it, the more we realise that the image begins and ends in the dried pigment and dead fibres of the canvas. Speaking of Richter’s landscape paintings from this period, Robert Storr writes that ‘Those who approach Richter’s landscapes with a yearning for the exotic or the pastoral are greeted by images that first intensify that desire and then deflect it’ (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 67).
Whilst many of Richter’s earlier photo-paintings had invoked German Romanticism’s preoccupation with the infinity of nature – in particular Caspar David Friedrich’s attempts to capture the ‘sublime’ – the Venedig paintings pay homage to the Old Masters who set out to capture the wonders of ‘La Serenissima’. Richter had used great Old Master painters before as a starting point for his work, most notably in his 1973 series of paintings based on Titian’s Annunciation – a work located in the Church of San Salvador in Venice, only a few miles from the location depicted in the present painting. By selecting a motif so deeply ingrained in visual consciousness – a motif that spoke to a golden age of progress and rebirth – Richter emphasises his own detachment. Venice, once the most grandiloquent of subjects, is now shown to be an illusion; a watery mirage lost forever, eternally beyond the reach of painting. For Richter, operating in a broken post-War world, works such as this allowed him to confront his own personal doubts about the survival of art in what he perceived to be an age of inhumanity. As Dietmar Elger has written, ‘[the] landscapes are bereft of human life. The artist looks for and finds only loneliness. Here, as in the earlier candle paintings, the artistic mechanism of subjective appropriation and thematic displacement comes into play. Richter explores his own state of mind through a visual metaphor that he can examine from an art-historical distance’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: My Life in Painting, Chicago, 2002, p. 269). Pristine and unyielding, Venedig (Insel) is ultimately a work of deep nostalgic poignancy: a shimmering, opulent yearning for a way of seeing now consigned to the depths of history.
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Venedig (Insel) (Venice (Island))
signed, incorrectly numbered and dated '586-2 Richter, 1985' (on the reverse); signed, numbered, titled and dated '"Venedig" 586-1 G. Richter' (on a label affixed to the reverse)
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, The Sublime Void: On the Memory of the Imagination, 1993, p. 273, no. 586-1.
Hanover, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Gerhard Richter. Landscapes, 1998-1999, p. 124, no. 586-1 (illustrated in colour, p. 84).
Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter. Billede efter billede / Gerhard Richter – Image after Image, 2005, p. 95, no. 58 (illustrated in colour, p.73).
J. Harten and D. Elger (eds.), Gerhard Richter Bilder: Paintings 1962-1985, exh. cat., Dusseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, 1986, p. 402, no. 586/1 (studio view illustrated in colour on the front cover; illustrated in colour, p. 346; studio view illustrated, p. 355).
G. Honnef-Harling, "Gerhard Richter. Bilder 1962-1985," in Kunstforum International, no. 83, March-May 1986, p. 232 (illustrated in colour).
F. Jahn (ed.), Gerhard Richter. Atlas, Munich, 1989, p. 15.
Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ed.), Gerhard Richter, Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné: 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, p. 179, no. 586-1 (illustrated in colour, p. 96).
P. Viviente, ‘Gerhard Richter: La Experiencia de la Naturalenza,’ in Arte Omega, September 1994, p. 8.
R. Beil, "Sublimes Teneriffa," in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 5 November 1998, p. 45 (illustrated).
U. Clewing, "Du sollst dir kein Bild machen," in Der Tagesspiegel, 7 December 1998, p. 26 (illustrated).
K. Thomas, Kunst in Deutschland seit 1945, Cologne 2002, p. 386 (illustrated in colour).
B. Eble, Gerhard Richter, La Surface du Regard, Paris 2006, p. 216.
K. Thomas, F. Seydel and H. Sowa, Kunst Bildatlas, Stuttgart/Leipzig 2007, p. 26 (illustrated in colour).
M. Augustin, Honigwarme Pupillen, Stuttgart, Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg 2010, p. 8 (illustrated in colour).
D. Elger (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Landscapes, Ostfildern-Ruit 2011, pp. 28 and 175, no. 586-1, (illustrated in colour, p. 105).
M. Godfrey and N. Serota (eds.), Gerhard Richter, Panorama, exh. cat., London, Tate Modern, 2011, p. 132.
D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, Nos. 389 –651-2, Volume 3 1976- 1987, Ostfildern-Ruit 2013, p. 478, no. 586-1 (illustrated in colour, p. 479; studio view illustrated in colour on the inside front cover).
G. Jansen (ed.), Schaf und Ruder / Wool and Water, exh. cat. Dusseldorf, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2016, p. 11.
Acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner in 1987.