"When I look out of the window, then what I see outside is true for me, in its various tones, colors and proportions. It is a truth and has its own rightness. This excerpt, any excerpt you like for that matter, is a constant demand on me, and it is a model for my pictures"
- G. Richter, quoted in C. Vielhaber Das Kunstwerk (4), 1986, p.43, quoted in D. Elger (ed.), Gerhard Richter Landscapes, exh. cat., Hannover, 1998, p.16.
Wolken (Rosa) is a majestic, large-scale and early landscape painting from Gerhard Richter's celebrated series of photo-paintings. Richter offers a window onto the sky, skillfully translating to canvas late afternoon's sublime air and atmosphere, touched with the warm glow of low-lying sun. The clouds appear soft, serene and transient, gently parted to reveal a celestial beam of sunlight. This romanticizing painting oscillates between abstraction and photorealism, quickly dissolving its image into an assembly of tones and smooth textures. The washes of rose pink and grey-blue chiaroscuro, proffer the illusion of reality, creating clouds with a unique transparency, which showcase the artist's technical genius. As Diether Honisch suggested on the occasion of Richter's exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the artist's unique skill creates "pictures [that] are windows leading into the beautiful world; they bring us the idyllic, dramatic and elegiac response to our emotional desire; they carry it into the show-room, right through the wall in front of which we are standing" (D. Honisch (ed.), Gerhard Richter, Essen, 1972, p. 11). In Wolken (Rosa), Richter has transposed his photograph of the sky, with nearly perfectly rendering and a unique devotion that recalls the legacy of German Romanticism and, in particular, the Dresden born artist, Caspar David Friedrich. Like Friedrich, Richter was drawn to landscape scenes through a strong feeling for Nature. When asked why he painted the afternoon sky's soft and seductive vistas, the artist once replied, "just because landscape is beautiful, it's probably the most terrific thing there is ... I felt like painting something beautiful" (G. Richter, quoted in R. Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2002, pp. 65-66). This confession was bold and dissident in the context of the early 1970s. Through it, Richter defied the prevailing avant-garde culture and decisively refused to let the art establishment pigeonhole him. Richter's treatment of Nature has a further subversive element, breaking from what John Ruskin once called the "Romantic fallacy", and stressing the disconcerting truth: Nature holds no regard for the desires, needs or fears of humanity.
In Wolken (Rosa), Gerhard Richter meticulously paints a photo-realist landscape of a cloud-filled sky, guided by a photograph taken from life, documented in his ongoing Atlas. He rendered the painting over three conjoining canvases, making it appear transcendental or spiritual as it appropriates the holy triptych. In this respect, Wolken (Rosa) powerfully invokes the legacy of 18th and 19th Century German Romanticism and in particular the artist Caspar David Friedrich. In resurrecting these elements of painting, Richter was boldly confronting the avant-garde conventions of the 1970s and affirming his right to create art addressing any subject matter or artistic tradition. As Richter once asserted, "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 any 'good,' it concerns us - transcending ideology - as art that we consider worth the trouble of defending (perceiving, showing, making). It is therefore quite possible to paint like Caspar David Friedrich today" (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elgar (ed.), Gerhard Richter Landscapes, exh. cat., Hannover, 1998, p. 12).
We can particularly see the affinity with Wolken (Rosa) in Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). The critical difference, however, lies in the assumptions made by each artist and the viewer about humanity's role in Nature. In Friedrich's painting, we see a person casting his eye over a dramatic natural vista replete with clouds and misty horizon. Friedrich positions man squarely in the composition's center, projecting human emotion onto the natural environment. In Wolken (Rosa) by contrast, there is no such figure in the picture. Instead, Richter invites the viewer to gaze out the window of the painting to regard an early evening sky's inherent and unmediated beauty. For Richter, all Nature is fundamentally outside the human purview and beyond any religious claims. In this way, Richter emphatically rejects what John Ruskin called the "Romantic fallacy", and subverts the traditional associations of Romantic landscape painting. As Richter has said of his landscapes, "[they] are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful' ... 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 inhuman. Every beauty that we see in landscape ... is our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice, to reveal only the appalling horror and ugliness" (G. Richter, quoted in J. Nestegrad (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Art of the Impossible - Paintings 1964-1998, Oslo, 1999).
No matter how close we get to Richter's painting, we are never able to alleviate our own alienation from Nature. Indeed physical proximity only renders the view more unobtainable, the picture disintegrating before our eyes into a blown-up element of a photograph or an abstract, painterly composition of colored elements. As Dietmar Elger has suggested "in this sense all Gerhard Richter's landscapes are visual models of a lost truth and this complements his Abstract Paintings, which he himself has described as 'fictive models' for the 'nonvisual'" (D. Elger (ed.), Gerhard Richter Landscapes, exh cat., Hannover, 1998, p. 21). In spite of this, Wolken (Rosa) captivates with its beauty, compelling the viewer to gaze at it. As Richter confessed, "for us, everything is empty. Yet, these paintings are still there. They still speak to us. We continue to love them, to use them, to have need of them" (G. Richter, quoted in R. Storr ed., Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2002, p.68).
Wolken (Rosa) evokes the Romantic notion of the sublime with profound beauty and technical mastery. At the same time it challenges the very concept of Nature and subverts the associations of landscape painting so powerfully expressed in the works of Caspar David Friedrich. It creates an intense illusion of reality, but one that distant and elusive Nature can never fulfill. Executed at the beginning of the 1970s, Wolken (Rosa) comes from a unique moment in Richter's career when he was investigating for the first time the unities between abstract and figurative painting. As the artist once said, "if the Abstract paintings show my reality, then the landscapes and still-lives 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" (G. Richter, quoted in A. Zweite (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1993-2004, Düsseldorf, 2005, p. 33).