Executed in 1969, Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) is a majestic photo-realist painting by Gerhard Richter from a small, seminal group of seascapes; the majority of which are now housed within international museum collections including: Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Musée départemental d'art contemporain, Rochechouart, Böckmann Collection, Berlin and Kunsthalle Hamburg. It is an awe-inspiring painting that projects a radiant horizon over a gently rippled sea, the eye travelling into the glowing and elusive distance. In Seestück (Leicht bewölkt), Richter has skillfully translated onto canvas the sublime air and atmosphere of the open water, his washes of color building to create clouds and reflective sea with a unique transparency. It is a masterful illusion, one which Dieter Honisch perfectly describes in his preface to Richter's exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1972: '[his] pictures 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, Gerhard Richter, Essen, 1972, p. 11). In Seestück (Leicht bewölkt), Richter has combined two unmatched photographs: one of the sky and one of an unnamed sea, faithfully rendering them in paint. The artist's technique is captivating through his use of countless tonal adjustments that constantly manipulate the spectator's focus. Upon first glance the painting radiates with a sublime natural beauty. With closer inspection however, the illusion is shattered by the incongruity of the upper and lower portions of the painting. As Robert Storr has observed, 'the viewer is thus left in a state of perpetual limbo bracketed by exigent pleasures and an understated but unshakable nihilism. 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 (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2002, pp. 65-66).
Richter's first color investigations of the natural landscape began in 1968, just one year before he created Seestück (Leicht bewölkt). Buoyed by his recent successes, Richter travelled to Corsica on his first real family vacation. Armed with his camera, he captured numerous rolls of photographs, which he later translated into paintings. These works contain the same wide, open horizon trailing into the distance and low, dramatic sky as captured in Seestück (Leicht bewölkt). For Richter, his early landscapes and seascapes represented a determined departure from the politicized painting and avant-gardism of the late 1960s. As he explained, "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, p.65-66). In doing so Richter was engaging with the legacy of eighteenth and nineteenth century German Romanticism, asserting his right to create art addressing any subject matter or artistic tradition. As the artist explained, "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. Elger (ed.), Gerhard Richter Landscapes, exh. cat., Hannover, 1998, p. 12).
We can particularly see the affinity between Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) and Friedrich's Monk by the Sea (1809). 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 solitary person casting his eye over a dramatic natural vista replete with a seemingly infinite horizon, atmospheric clouds and placid, open water. Friedrich casts man squarely at the heart of the composition, projecting human emotion onto the natural environment. In Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) by contrast, there is no such figure in the picture. Instead, Richter invites the viewer to gaze upon the unmediated beauty of the sublime landscape without ever making contact, remaining forever frustrated by its intangibility. For Richter, all Nature is fundamentally outside the human purview and beyond any religious claims. In this way, he 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). As a subject, the landscape has continued to captivate the artist for over fifty years, constituting what Dietmar Elger has described as an important "conceptual, aesthetic, and technical bridge from photo-paintings to the abstract paintings" (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne, 2002, p. 173). In Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) this connection between figurative and abstract, the experience of color and landscape is underscored by its special relationship with Blinky Palermo's Cloth Pictures. During this period Richter was intimately acquainted with Palermo's works having seen them exhibited at his friend Konrad Fischer's gallery in 1968. Indeed Richter's first wife, Ema had actually hand sewn the bands of cloth for Palermo. In Untitled (1967-9) the stacked, horizontal stripes of light and dark blue are arranged in precisely the same ratio as Seestück(Leicht bewölkt), the division falling at exactly the same level as Richter's landscape horizon. In this respect, "Richter was crossing Friedrich with Palermo to make the Seascapes. He asked whether it would be possible to make a radical painting of the kind that Palermo was developing with a traditional image, and he subjected this most traditional of images to the logic of repetition" (M. Godfrey, 'Damaged Landscapes', M. Godfrey & N. Serota (eds.), Gerhard Richter Panorama: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London 2011, p. 82).
In Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) Richter playfully subverts not only the formal language of German Romanticism, but also the visual logic of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed in his painting, the clean, linear, dividing horizon between sea and sky recalls the monumental zip traversing the center of Newman's Vic Heroicus Sublimis (1950). Where Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko's intense fields of color deliberately invoked the abstract sublime however, Richter simultaneously introduces and denies this experience of color. As Robert Storr has suggested, "[Richter's] answer was to further fictionalize this science fiction, and thereby make all the artifice and suspension of disbelief explicit" (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 70). Three decades later, fellow German artist Andreas Gursky was to once more engage these concepts in his photographic masterpiece, Rhein II (1999), mechanically refining the image of the epic river Rhine to create a similar play on abstraction, figuration and the sublime.
Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) is a work of profound beauty and technical mastery, which intentionally raises the romantic notion of the sublime. 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 end of the 1960s, Seestück (Leicht bewölkt) 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).