"[Gursky's] hymn to the Rhine and his lovely send up of commercial allure echo each other. God and Mammon are discovered to have used the same geometric template. Both creators simultaneously inciting us to wonderment" (P. Galassi, "Gursky's World," Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 35).
"There is a particular place with a view over the Rhine which has somehow always fascinated me, but it didn't suffice for a picture as it basically constituted only part of a picture. I carried this idea for a picture around with me for a year and a half and thought about whether I ought perhaps to change my viewpoint. ... In the end I decided to digitalize the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me" (A. Gursky quoted in A. Ltgens, "Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet," Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, p. xvi).
A breathtaking masterpiece of scale and wonderment, as well as the icon of Andreas Gursky's pioneering photographic oeuvre, Rhein II, enwraps the viewer in the sheer beauty of its scene. It is one of an edition of six photographs, four of which are currently housed in major international public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate Modern, London, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, and Glenstone, Potomac. Unusually for the artist, this series contains photographs produced on multiple scales, the present work being the largest of the entire edition. Reaching out towards infinity, the work invokes a contemporary take on the "sublime" with the astounding perfection of line and color achieved through the invocation of an apparently natural landscape. Reflecting on Barnett Newman's historical search for the abstract "sublime" in the 1950s, here Gursky adopts this metaphor and applies to it perhaps the most symbolic motif in German art. In doing so, he creates a dramatic and profound reflection on human existence and our relationship to nature on the cusp of the twenty-first century. For Gursky, as for many of his art historical predecessors, the Rhine is of almost totemic significance. One of the longest rivers in Europe, it carves an exceptionally straight course, passing through six different countries including the artist's home town of Düsseldorf before reaching its confluence with the North Sea. Spanning the full width of the epic picture plane, the Rhine's captivating, riverine landscape appears vibrant with bands of bright, emerald green grass and slivery water, the ripples across the surface of the river illuminated with brilliant, hyper-real detail. Above the straight course of the river lies an atmospheric, blue-grey sky, thick with dense clouds, which almost bisects the composition, presenting a distant, unobtainable horizon far beyond the lush riverbank. One of the most powerful and profound depictions ever to be created of the Rhine, the photograph's unique scale draws an ineffable link to the actual natural landscape, inviting the viewer to cross over into its vivid picture plane.
Rhein II marks the culmination of Gursky's examinations of the Rhineland, which he began as early as 1989 with Angler, Mülheim a.d. Ruhr (Anglers, Mülheim). For the artist, the river has a unique resonance, being significant both to Düsseldorf and to its distinctive school of photography, which Gursky himself pioneered. In 1996, he created his first iteration of the present work entitled simply Rhein, capturing a stretch of the river visited on his daily jogging route. The image, featured on the front cover of the catalogue for his major touring retrospective at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1998, became instantly iconic. This early, smaller format composition was created using a slightly higher and flatter perspective, the sky appearing to be uniform grey in color. It was later refined in Rhein II, offering the viewer a more direct, heightened and visually arresting image of the historically significant river. As Peter Galassi has noted, with its unimpeded horizontal and geometric arrangements of color, Rhein II reflects a "rich inheritance of reductive aesthetics from Friedrich to Newman to Richter to Donald Judd" (P. Galassi, "Gursky's World," in Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 35). Indeed, traces of each of these forebears are visible in the work: Caspar David Friedrich's open celebration of God's infinite horizon; Gerhard Richter's playful subversion of the romantic landscape; Donald Judd's serialized reflections on the qualities of industrialized society; and Barnett Newman's invocation of the "sublime" through abstraction.
With its vast panorama, Rhein II invites the viewer to immerse oneself in the image, the eye being greeted by an expanse of green from both directions, left and right. The picture rapidly dissolves from a figurative landscape into an abstract composition: as Gursky has averred, "my pictures are becoming increasingly formal and abstract. A visual structure appears to dominate the real events shown in my pictures. I subjugate the real situation to my artistic concept of the picture" (A. Gursky quoted by L. Cooke, "Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per)Versions," in M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the Present, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Düseldorf, 1998, p. 14). Palpable similarities exist between the composition of Rhein II and Newman's late vibrant paintings admired for their expansive, all enveloping, chromatic fields. As Mel Bochner once described the dramatic effect of Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-1951 upon a viewer in the museum: "[she] was covered with red I realized it was the light shining on the painting reflecting back, filling the space between the viewer and the artwork that created the space, the place. And that that reflection of the self of the painting, the painting as the subject reflected on the viewer, was a wholly new category of experience" (M. Bochner, quoted in R. Shiff, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 2004, p. 71). It is this "experience" of unassailable, bold color and its radical resurrection of the "sublime" that is of importance to Newman, and which fundamentally echoes with Gursky's brilliant composition in Rhein II.
Throughout European history, the Rhine, often referred to as Vater Rhein (Father Rhine), has been an important cultural motif and mainstay for a multitude of people. Invoked in ancient folklore, art, and music, it has also been integral to the waging of war, the staging of industry, and the operation of many people's daily livelihoods. Recurring as a theme throughout Richard Wagner's great four-part operatic opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), it has also been endlessly featured in German Romanticism by artists such as Casper David Friedrich and Joseph Anton Koch who once proclaimed euphorically, "the sublime spectacle deeply stirred my soul, oppressed as it was by false gods; my blood surged and my heart pounded like the wild river. It seemed as if the god of the Rhine were calling to me from the jagged rock: Stand up! Act!" (J. A. Koch, quoted in M. Warnke, Political landscape: the art history of nature, London, 1994, p. 96). The Rhine has also often been recalled in the work of German post-war painters Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. As Kiefer once explained his own native fascination, "I grew up on the banks of the Rhine. France was on the other side. As a child I saw the river as an insuperable obstacle, something you could not swim across. It thus acquired a mythical status for me. When you came to this barrier you could turn left or right but not go straight ahead, except in your imagination" (A. Kiefer, interview with B. Comment,"Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles," Art Press 216, September 1996). These antecedent associations, if not intentionally invoked through Gursky's pure, elegant aesthetic, are all bound up in his iconic depiction of the Rhine.
Gursky was originally schooled by the celebrated artists Bernd and Hilla Becher at the renowned Künstacademie in Düsseldorf. With his direct and unflinching perspective centered upon one theme, here the familiar straight stretch of the river Rhine, his style recalls the Bechers' own distinctive practice. However, his work does make a radical departure with its brilliant use of color and large-format imagery. Indeed, faced with what he considered to be the fundamental inadequacies of the documentary practice, Gursky was persuaded in 1992 to begin using digital technology as a means of manipulation. In doing so, the artist skillfully generated an "illusion of a fictitious reality," throwing into question the veracity of the image as it fluctuates between a pristine landscape and an artificial reframing of the world (R. Pfab, "Perception and Communication: Thoughts on New Motifs by Andreas Gursky," in M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the Present, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1998, p. 9). Like the painter, Gursky constructs his composition, removing all small arbitrary details interrupting his clean horizon. As he once elaborated, "there is a particular place with a view over the Rhine which has somehow always fascinated me, but it didn't suffice for a picture as it basically constituted only part of a picture. I carried this idea for a picture around with me for a year and a half and thought about whether I ought perhaps to change my viewpoint ... In the end I decided to digitalise the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me" (A. Gursky, quoted in A. Lütgens, "Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet," Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, Wolfsburg, 1998, p. xvi). As a result the viewer is not invited to consider a specific place along the river but rather an almost "Platonic" ideal of the body of water as it navigates the landscape.
Perfected, straightened, and heightened, Rhein II is also a reflection of the effect contemporary man has had on his environment. As Gursky has explained, "I wasn't interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it" (A. Gursky, quoted in L. Cooke, "Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per)Versions," M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the present, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Düseldorf, 1998, p. 13). Certainly the artist has drawn parallels between the engineered landscape of the Rhine and the urban space, illuminating the formal, geometric arrangement of heavily laden supermarket shelves and residential units as seen in Paris Montparnasse, 1993, and 99 Cent, 1999. As Peter Galassi has so eloquently described, "[Gursky's] hymn to the Rhine and his lovely send up of commercial allure echo each other. God and Mammon are discovered to have used the same geometric template. Both creators simultaneously inciting us to wonderment" (P. Galassi, "Gursky's World," Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 35).