Gerhard Richter's Kleine Strasse, painted in 1987, presents the viewer with an intriguing riddle. On the one hand, this absorbing view of the countryside, with its path winding its way into the background, fits well with an entire tradition of Romantic landscape painting; on the other hand, this is a picture by Richter, the arbiter of German Pop, or Capitalist Realism, a man who had repeatedly overturned notions of art, and who was creating some of his most lush and colourful Abstract Paintings during the same year. Richter's paintings present a paradox, in part because they are often the result of the struggle within the artist himself as he veers from assaults on painting itself-- and indeed on art and representation-- to a desire to salvage his vocation. It is in Richter's landscapes, which despite their clear debt to a source photograph of deliberate mediocrity are still filled with some of the Romantic spirit, that the struggle is perhaps most apparent.
In a sense, of course, Kleine Strasse is not a landscape at all, but is a form of still life-- Richter, avoiding any notion of Impressionist-with-his-easel endeavours, has painted from a photograph. In doing so, he has remained deceptively true to his source; at the same time, this post-Duchampian process implies that the source itself is arbitrary, the merest pretext for Richter's movements as he copies out the photograph by other means. In this way, intriguing dialectics about the nature of truth, representation, inspiration and subjectivity are introduced-- and summarily ignored by the artist, leaving all the viewer's questions about Richter's intentions open and unanswered.
Richter has not chosen the photograph at random, as is clear from comparison with some of the other landscapes that he painted during this period. This was very much an important flip side to the Abstract coin, but one that reflected both the interest and the taste of the artist himself. Discussing the first landscapes that he painted at the height of his Capitalist Realist period, he explained that he had chosen the genre, 'Just because landscape is beautiful. It's probably the most terrific thing there is[...] I felt like painting something beautiful' (Richter, quoted in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, trans. D. Britt, London 1995, pp.63-64). Richter had originally been trained as a painter in East Germany, as a figurative artist. His Photo Paintings had illustrated the emptiness of that entire side of painting while also allowing him a means of validating it as a medium; in his landscapes, he went further, creating works that are clearly aesthetically pleasing.
This in itself can be seen as some manner of taunt or trap from Richter, a provocation both to the establishment against which exposure to the various ideologies of National Socialism, Socialism and Capitalism had steeled him, and to the avant garde which he often saw as conceited or contrived. Richter, with cavalier abandon, has discarded Theodor Adorno's dictum about a poem after Auschwitz being barbaric, and has created something that, while maintaining its cool and cynical contemporary credentials, nonetheless is... beautiful. He is playing with expectations both of contemporary art in the late Twentieth Century and with the expectations people had of his own work. In the 1980s, the fact that he was established as an avant garde artist of renown in Europe and as a painter of Abstracts in particular in the United States helped to refuel his interest in the landscape genre:
'it was a polemic against this annoying modernist development that I hated. And, of course, the assertion of my freedom: 'Why shouldn't I paint like this and who could tell me not to?' And then the affirmation was naturally there, the wish to paint paintings as beautiful as those by Caspar David Friedrich, to claim that this time is not lost but possible, that we need it, and that it is good' (Richter (2001), quoted in R. Storr, 'Interview with Gerhard Richter', pp. 287-309, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh.cat, ed. Storr, New York 2002, p. 302).
Even in terms of the view presented, Kleine Strasse is far less innocent than it looks. The Romantic tradition of landscape in Germany during the early Nineteenth Century had in part been linked to and co-opted by the Pan-Germanism movement. The love of the soil, of the forests and of the mountains related to the sense of Heimat which had been so abused by propagandists during the Nazi era of Richter's own youth and which have informed so many of Anselm Kiefer's and Georg Baselitz' works concerning German national identity. While Richter's mountain scenes, seascapes and cloud pictures are informed by an echo of the epic that recalls Triumph des Willens, there is a sense of nostalgic wistfulness, of contemplation, of the rolling and fertile countryside in Kleine Strasse.
For Richter, even concepts of Nature itself are barbed and reflect on the way that we view pictures:
'My landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful' (even if I did not always find a way of showing it); and by 'untruthful' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature-- Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless: the total antithesis of ourselves, absolutely inhuman.
'Every beauty that we see in landscape-- every enchanting colour effect, or tranquil scene, or powerful atmosphere, every gentle linearity or magnificent spatial depth or whatever is our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice, to reveal only the appalling horror and ugliness' (Richter, 1986, quoted in Obrist, op.cit., 1995, p. 124).
But, as is ever the case with Richter, this trailblazing shape-shifter of the art world, there is an equal and opposite point present. Where Richter claims to see nature in its full, horrifying lack of humanity, taking apart our own constructs of beauty and of our relationship with the world and with the landscape of our own nations, he also bemoans the loss of the trust that used to exist in the universe of the Old Masters, the strange, understood covenant between painter, picture and viewer; and he bemoans the loss of faith in our life-after-God, post-Nietzschian era. He craves the simpler times from before the ideologies with which he has been so disenchanted and which have prompted the stand-offish dimension of his pictures. That cynicism, that distance, is constantly shot through with a craving for the good old days of aesthetics and belief. 'If the Abstract Pictures show my reality, then the landscapes and still-lifes show my yearning,' he confessed, cutting to the quick of the paradox that paintings such as Kleine Strasse reveal. 'This is a grossly oversimplified, off-balance way of putting it, of course; but 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' (Richter, quoted in ibid., p. 98).