Vogelfluglinie is one of the last and most accomplished of the celebrated ‘photo-paintings’ that Gerhard Richter produced in the 1960s. Painted in 1967, it derives from a highly important period of exploration and new invention in Richter’s oeuvre. This was a time when the artist was producing a diverse range of works, many of which are among the most complex and conceptually brilliant of all his creations. Vogelfluglinie is a large-scale, square-format oil painting, measuring nearly six-feet in diameter. It is rendered solely in mock-mechanical swathes of grey, black and white oil paint that combine to envelop the viewer in a seemingly blurred, indistinct and shimmering field of photographic-style imagery. At a distance, this shifting field of painterliness coalesces into the volatile but readable image of a Baltic passenger ferry docking, with its bow-doors open, at a railway terminal and in the process of swallowing a train.
In both the manner of its execution and in its deliberate choice of a seemingly banal, if also slightly bizarre, subject, Vogelfluglinie is a work that epitomizes the aims that Richter had pursued in all his 1960s photo-paintings up until this point. Foremost among these was his intention to throw into direct contrast the supposed objectivity and truth of photography against the manifest artifice and illusion of painting and the painted image. With its fascinating combination of vagueness and precision Vogelfluglinie is a picture whose highly painterly surface openly puzzles and intrigues the viewer’s gaze, thereby fore-fronting a multitude of questions about the nature of representation and the gaps that exist between perception and reality.
The overriding sense of ambiguity presented in this painting is reinforced by the way in which Richter has dramatically blurred the imagery in a faux-mechanical way, smearing the still wet paint with a large, dry brush in a series of horizontal sweeps across the surface so that his hand-crafted imagery emulates a look of being mechanically produced. “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant” Richter has said. “I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsman-like but technological, smooth and perfect.” (Gerhard Richter quoted in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, (ed.) Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. London, 1995, p.37)
Certainly, the manifest artifice of Richter’s ‘blurring’ is such that here, it establishes a visible sense of distance between the image in the work and it’s claims on reality. Shifting constantly between recognizability and obscuration, the extraordinarily dense and complex image at the heart of Vogelfluglinie is so disrupted in this way that it appears to hover on the borderlines between figuration and abstraction. Indeed, the painting as a whole deliberately appears to function only in a space that exists halfway between reality and fiction or dream and memory. It is in this way, through its demonstrable mix of apparent photographic fact and painterly fiction, that Vogelfluglinie epitomizes the paradox that Richter sought from all his 1960s ‘photo-paintings’: the creation of what he has called ‘analogies’: images that are undeniably factually-based but which are also ambiguous, enigmatic and indefinable.
“I would like to try to understand what is,” Richter explained in 1972. “We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy to what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying; ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.’” (Gerhard Richter quoted in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, op cit p. 63.)
What Richter wanted from his photo-paintings, he noted to himself in the mid-1960s, was to create paintings in which the real and the illusory qualities of the image and the means of producing it clash against one another repeatedly in the same work. “My pictures have little to do with the original photograph.” Richter has said, “they are totally painting (whatever that may mean). On the other hand, they are so like the photograph, that the thing that distinguished the photograph from all other pictures remains intact.” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Notes 1964-65,’ in ibid, p. 34)
As if to reinforce this sense of ambivalence and mystery that he finds in such pictorial imagery, Richter’s choice of subject matter in his photo-paintings was also often drawn from deliberately vague, intriguing and uncertain sources. In the 1960s, Richter always chose a specific and carefully-selected type of image, often overtly mundane, nondescript and even blurred or poor-quality photographs. It was this type of image, Richter has insisted, that often had more power, “more secretiveness and mystery than the clear photos that are easy to read.” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Interview with Uwe M Schneede’, in Gerhard Richter Images of an Era exh. cat, Hamburg, 2011, p. 108.) Such images were important to him, because they were more likely to remain open-ended and indefinable, and these are qualities that are essential for Richter. As someone who had experienced life in both the Third Reich and Communist East Germany before moving to the West in 1961, Richter is fiercely opposed to all certainty, fixed-definitions and ideology, which he considers, like “beliefs of every kind” to be essentially “superfluous” and “mortally dangerous.” In addition, and with regard to the images he makes, he has argued that, in the end, “knowing a thing, does nothing for us, it only distracts us.” Rather, Richter insists, his aim is to create paintings that “reflect [this] mystery and, if possible, amplify it.” (ibid) Vogelfluglinie is very much a case in point.
Painted in 1967 at a time when Richter had begun to explore themes outside of the earlier photo-paintings with which he had, by this time, made his name, Vogelfluglinie is a surprisingly large and ambitious photo-painting founded upon a comparatively unusual subject. The painting was made in a year in which Richter spent the summer in Hamburg as a replacement-professor for Paul Wunderlich at the Hamburger Hochschule für bildende Künste, (The Hamburg University of the Arts ). As the title of the painting suggests, Vogelfluglinie depicts the Hamburg ferry terminal of the German-Danish transport network known as the ‘Vogelfluglinie’ or bird-flight line. This ‘bird-flight-line’ was, and is still, a transport corridor between Germany and Denmark that comprises a rail network and a ferry service between Hamburg and Copenhagen. It runs across the Baltic and the island of Fehmarn and its name, which means ‘bee-line’ or ‘as the crow flies’, comes from the description of a straight line. It also relates to a route taken by migrating birds in this region. As can be seen in the image that Richter has used as the basis for this painting, among the most striking aspect of the ‘Vogelfluglinie’ is its use of a rare train-ferry in which passenger trains from the Deutsche-Bahn are transported across the ocean by ship. As is also often the case in a country that is noticeably unimaginative in the way that it names its ships, one of these train-ferries, (indeed, quite possibly the ferry represented in this painting), is the aptly named ‘Deutschland’.
At the time that Richter painted this picture therefore, the ‘Vogelfluglinie’ was a more-or-less new transport network. The idea for this transport corridor had first originated in the 1920s but its construction was only begun by the Nazis in World War II during the occupation of Denmark. In the immediate post-war period, construction was then halted due to the problem of the Nazis’ originally-planned line now running across the newly-established East German border, (in Warnermünde, near Rostock). Work on a new, solely West German route was subsequently restarted in 1949. This amended route made a lie of the name ‘Vogelfluglinie’ however, by transforming it from a straight line on the map into one that was now bent around the East-West border to run through Hamburg. Nevertheless, the Vogelfluglinie network kept its name and was completed in May 1963 whereupon it was opened, amidst much fanfare, by the West German president Heinrich Lübke and the Danish King, Frederik IX.
As a prestigious and recently-opened project of international co-operation between two democratic West-European countries, the Vogelfluglinie, stood—in the 1960s at least—as both a poignant reminder of Germany’s troubled past and as a symbol of the revitalized nation’s ability to move on. For the West German government, it was a project that essentially propagandized the prowess of the country’s modern technological progress and its infrastructure, and also, by extension, of the ability of its citizens to travel both freely and internationally. It was even, perhaps, a symbol of West-European revelry. The ‘Vogelfluglinie’ was, in all respects, a mighty image of the West German Wirtschaftswunder or ‘economic miracle’ that, in the 1960s, the country enjoyed in notable contrast to its more economically-deprived, neighbor, Communist-controlled East Germany.
During the 1960s, the Vogelfluglinie represented just the kind of story the West German media loved and also, the propagandist whitewashing of reality that was resented by Richter and many of his generation. Popularized images indicative of the Wirtschaftswunder were a staple of the West German media and it was often these that Richter chose as source material for his photo-paintings.
Seeking to both mock and expose the manipulative powers at play behind such pictures’ apparent claims of objectivity and truthfulness, Richter, between 1963 and 1967, painted such imagery under the name of a group aesthetic that he and his Dusseldorf-based friends (Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg and Konrad Fischer), called ‘Capitalist Realism’. The name, ‘Capitalist Realism’ was intended as an ironic, mirror-image of Socialist Realism—the state sponsored style of art-making in East Germany under which Richter, in particular, had been trained and received his artistic foundation. “‘Capitalist Realism’ was essentially a jocular term or ‘ism’: a caustic, alternative form of Pop Art produced largely in response to the West’s Americanized mass-media. It was, Richter has since said, intended to ‘attack both sides. It made socialist realism look ridiculous and the possibility of capitalist realism equally so.” (Gerhard Richter quoted in C. Mehring, J Nugent, J Seydl, eds., Gerhard Richter, Early Work, 1951-1972, Los Angeles, 2010, p. 72) In essence, Capitalist Realism is a term that underscores Richter and his friend’s inherent distrust of all supposed ‘Realisms’ or claims on ‘the truth’.
Within such a Capitalist Realist context, the subject-matter of Vogelfluglinie would seem to be one which fits in perfectly with this tendency in Richter’s work. Part Cold-War spy-photograph, part West-German propaganda, the painting presents an image that, although appearing unassuming, has a hidden back-story: one that relates directly to the then current situation in Germany and belies the apparent banality of the painting’s demonstrably artificial surface.
The idea that appearances were not what they seemed in 1960s Germany was one of the overriding assertions of Richter’s photo-paintings. Post-War West Germany was a country that did not want to look too deeply beneath the surface of things for fear of what it might find there. Richter’s art played directly upon this fear. Many of the most innocuous-looking of Richter’s pictures, for example, appeared to depict ordinary, anonymous people going about their business. But, they were, in fact, images based upon media photos of famous figures like Brigitte Bardot, Jackie Kennedy or Lee Harvey Oswald, for example. Other of Richter’s photo-paintings from this ‘Capitalist Realist’ period were more sinister. They depicted former Nazis caught masquerading under false identities, or murder victims whose images had only become known because their pictures had appeared in the local paper. In a similar vein, Richter’s paintings of seemingly random and arbitrary subjects such as cars and planes, or of holiday-makers laughing on a boat, also revealed themselves to be further explorations in artifice and of the distance that lies between image, reality and truth. Inspired by the conceptual language of American Pop and by the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol in particular, Richter’s pictures of fancy, military jets, for example, led in a wholly different direction to their paintings. Richter’s grey, realist, photo-like images of fighter-planes invoked a sense of the grim reality of war and of the strong American military presence in West Germany at this time. A painting like Schärzler of 1965 went even further by reminding everyone that it was the Nazis who had originally invented jet fighters by focusing upon the uncomfortable subject of a modern West-German jet fighter that had been designed and built by a former-Nazi engineer. Richter’s image of happy holiday-makers on a motor boat was, likewise, also a picture that reveled in the multiple layers of its own artifice and in the apparent discord between medium and message. His two Motor-Boat paintings of 1965 were based upon a faked-up holiday snap that had been staged by an advertising company for use in their advert for a camera.
As Richter later admitted, the supposedly arbitrarily-chosen motifs in these works “were never random...They were very definitely concerned with content. Perhaps I denied that earlier, when I maintained that it had nothing to do with content, that for me it was only a matter of painting a photo and demonstrating indifference...I looked for photos that showed my actuality, that related to me. And I selected black and white photos because I noticed that they depicted that more forcefully than colour photos, more directly, with less artistry, and were therefore more believable.” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Interview with Benjamin Buchloch’ in Gerhard Richter: Painting, London 1988, p. 20)
In this context, therefore, it would seem that Richter’s choice of motif for Vogelfluglinie was also not as wholly arbitrary or innocuous as it may at first have appeared. Like Motor Boat before it, it presents a demonstrably artificial image of a multiply-layered, blurred and compromised subject from the Wirtschaftswunder years. In the same way that the Vogelfluglinie itself was not a straight line but more of a West German ‘fudge’ around various inconvenient historical and geographical boundaries, so too, it might seem, therefore, is Richter’s painting of it.
Richter does not know where he came across the source-image of the painting but it was not a privately-taken photo, nor was it, he believes, one that, like the majority of sources for his photo-paintings, derived from images in popular magazines such as Quick, Stern or Neue Illustrierte. More probably, he says, the source-image for Vogelfluglinie came ‘from a book.’ (ibid) It was, interestingly, a re-photographed image taken of another photograph.
Style-less, functional and documentary-like, the source-image is a re-photographed image of 1960s West German transport infrastructure. The unremarkable quality, paired with its uniqueness, relates it to the suggestive power of a spy-photograph. Like a spy’s photograph, it too seems to be a picture of both nothing and everything at the same time. The weight of this innate ambiguity in the image is emphasized by the large-scale of the painting which, at six-feet square, asserts its presence as a large, painterly field overladen with imagery and information, but ultimately signifying nothing.
What evidently most caught Richter’s eye—and continues to intrigue him—about this picture, is what he has described as the unheimlich or uncanny quality of “how the train disappears into the ship’s belly.” (ibid) This bizarre, almost anthropomorphic image of the mystery of a train in a tunnel has, of course, something of an archetype about it. It is, in part, an image that in art was first invoked in the work of that earlier 20th Century master of the painted enigma, Giorgio de Chirico, and was later frequently taken up by those other devotees of the strange unreality of the real: the Surrealists.
Here, in the coldly, objective and matter-of-fact manner of Richter’s blurred world of black-and-white, photographic realism, the mystery of this image of the train takes on a thoroughly more sinister ambience. Here, the inherent poetry invoked by Surrealist trains is wholly lacking. In its place is only an unsettling sense of the bizarre.
In 2001, Robert Storr spoke to Richter about this characteristic underpinning so many of his most banal photo-paintings and asked him whether this umheimlich quality was something he had deliberately soug ht to invoke. Richter answered “no.” To pursue this path too far, he said, was one that would ultimately end up in the more clearly-definable (and therefore less valid and less interesting) realm of social criticism. What he sought from such unnerving and uncanny qualities in his images, he elaborated was more that the viewer should become “reminded of something.” In the “ideal case,” Richter said, “somebody looks at the work and asks what this is supposed to be and why would anybody paint such a banal object. And then the person comes to think that maybe there is something more to it, that maybe the object is not that banal after all, that maybe it is horrible. It stands for something…not as a symbol. But the longer you see it the more it becomes frightening...it is an image of this horror, a detail of it…of the misery of this world [LAUGHTER]” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Interview with Robert Storr,’ Gerhard Richter Forty Years of Painting, New York, 2002, p. 294).