'Of course, 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 a our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice'
(Richter, 1986, quoted in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 124).
The panoramic expanse of Eifellandschaft (Straße) stretches out before the viewer to document the sublime meeting point of landscape and sky across the Eifel landscape near his adopted hometown of Dsseldorf. With the subtle hues of darkness and light deftly applied to heighten the extraordinary burst of heat and light at the horizon, this work represents one of the very first colour landscape paintings that Richter executed from his own photographs. Following directly from his landmark suite of exotic paintings in Corsica, the paintings of his local landscape take the blurring of the boundary between figurative and abstract painting to its most potent extreme and provide direct linkage with the important Seascape paintings of the same period, which investigated similar values. Here, the vast expanse of luminous sky, emphasised through the low horizon that allows it to dominate the picture surface, reveals an incredible multiplicity of tone and detail on close inspection. The work is created with a vital economy of means; from the thick horizontally dragged brushstroke, which defines the road running along the bottom of the composition; to the subtle intervention of the fluffy clouds which somehow add dynamic perspective to the brushy abstraction of the sky; to the clinical meeting point of landscape and sky. The painting seems somehow reminiscent of Barnett Newman's search for the sublime or the late paintings of Mark Rothko from this time, whilst also interacting with the photo-realist movement led by Chuck Close, which was beginning to burst onto the scene in the late 1960s. Either way this body of work defined Richter's pronounced, mature, Post-modern vision of painting and many of the works from this group are now in museums, including Kleine Landschaft am Meer, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, Landschaft am Hubbelrath in the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, and Landschaft mit kleiner Brücke in the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MUMOK), Vienna.
During the early to mid 1960s Richter had made his name with his black and white Photopaintings, which fell under the early aegis of German Pop Art, but it was in the years between 1967-1970 that the full expanse of his vision would be unveiled in an unprecedented period of creativity in which all forms of style in painting from Abstract to Figurative, Minimalist to Constructive were explored and amalgamated with equal technical virtuosity and aplomb. At the heart of his investigation was the relevance of painting in a world of photography and whilst he had begun his career borrowing images from other printed sources and re-painting them, during this period he began to take his own photographs as the source for his works. In 1968, the artist was able to take his family on their first true holiday abroad, travelling to Corsica. There, he took photos himself that would come to serve as the basis for a number of pictures from 1968 and 1969.
These were more immersive and subjective reactions to the landscape than his earlier scrapbook-style explorations of the genre, and revealed the truth of his later confession, when asked why he turned to the genre: 'Just because landscape is beautiful. It's probably the most terrific thing there is... I felt like painting something beautiful' (Richter, Interview with Rolf Gunther Dienst, 1970, quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, trans. David Britt, London, 1995, pp.63-64). Subsequently, a number of Richter's works were based on photographs from areas in his surrounding region, for instance Lake Lucerne in Switzerland or the low-lying mountainous area of Eifel, on the border between Germany and Belgium, as was the case in this picture and another larger work, Große Eifellandschaft of the same year. These works often featured the low, distant horizon evident in Eifellandschaft (Straße).
Eifellandschaft (Straße) is a study of light and landscape, tone and form. Just as the sensational starkness of white light at the horizon dominates the composition, so the respective shadow it casts on the grassy landscape, road and single solitary signpost is expertly depicted. With one small intervention into nature, the signpost becomes a signifier of proportion for an otherwise unknowable expanse. It also creates a single vertical comma in a serene composition of vertical bands, the sense of which may well have inspired Andreas Gursky's important contemporary take on German landscape, Rhein. Each band is treated in a different chromatic and technical way with the most obvious opposition being created by the thick density of the carefully massaged horizontal gesture of paint in the road to the much looser fluffed painterly gestures of the sky. Richter's relationship with landscape changed as he himself shifted towards a more conceptual and holistic artistic practice. Richter's landscapes from this period allowed him to carry out an intriguing balancing act between figuration and abstraction: they in particular had a relationship because he invoked the visual language of abstraction within his landscapes. This was the case in the Stadtbilder that he created at the same period, which often resembled gestural abstraction, as well as in the crisp, restrained elegance of paintings that recalled the simplicity of Minimalism such as Eifellandschaft (Straße) and other works of the same year.
It was in 1969, the year that Richter painted Eifellandschaft (Straße), that the sheer multiplicity of his output became openly apparent to the public, as he displayed his new forays into abstraction alongside landscapes and figurative works based on newspaper photos and other such photos at his first solo show in a public institution. This took place in Aachen, at the Gegenverkehr e.V., and was organised by Klaus Honnef; the pictures there were hung deliberately without any sense of chronology or theme, but instead in a seeming random array that underscored the mind-boggling variety of Richter's works. This was a technique that suited Richter, whose pictures has always focussed on the arbitrary ways in which images can be made - be it in his early Photo Paintings or his more recent Abstracts, he has dismantled and reconstructed the entire process of constructing a painting. That variety was already evident from his sources, and it appears as no coincidence that it was during this time that he began to compile those images into the now famous Atlas. This is an ever-growing subjective anthology of photos, some found by and others taken by Richter, which he first exhibited in part under the title Studies 1965-1970 the following year at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, and which would be formally exhibited under the Atlas title in 1970 in Utrecht. Since then, Richter has added to and exhibited this shifting, swelling flow of source material many times. This multiplicity, which is made all the more extreme by the presence of his abstract works, was a legacy of his background, as he had been an art student in the German Democratic Republic when Socialist Realism was still being promoted; after he had moved to West Germany and gone to art school, where abstraction prevailed and indeed where people were moving away from painting entirely, he had sought a means of keeping his vocation alive yet conceptually valid.
In short, Richter was salvaging painting, examining the way in which it had become seemingly obsolete in the age of the photograph. He was turning the tables, using photography, seemingly the cause of the demise of the painting, in order to sustain painting. In Eifellandschaft (Straße), this is clear from the means of execution of the picture itself: the road in the foreground in particular retains a gestural substantiality, showing the traces of where the brush has been pulled across the picture surface.
Crucially, in his landscapes from this important period, Richter managed simultaneously to invoke and puncture both abstraction and also Romanticism. In Eifellandschaft (Straße), the influence of Caspar David Friedrich is clear. 'Richter's landscapes are almost invariably understood in terms of the great historical tradition of German Romantic painting,' Dietmar Elger has explained in his authoritative biography of the artist, expanding on the subject in terms that clearly recall Eifellandschaft (Straße):
'They are especially compared to the work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Both artists follow a formal scheme... their landscapes are marked by a deep-set horizon; a high, often cloudless, sky; and an unremarkable foreground with perhaps a solitary building or prominent topographical detail for scale... The comparison with Friedrich makes excellent sense. Not only is Friedrich foundational to the very notion of German landscape painting, but each artist spent important years of his life in Dresden. Indeed, several critics have concluded that, despite being separated by more than a century, the two share a similar experience of nature' (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, trans. E.M. Solaro, Chicago & London, 2009, pp. 173-74).
Elger has pointed out that, when Richter was still an art student in the GDR, he used to travel to Dahlem to visit the museums and always took time to view the paintings by Friedrich. However, while Richter was clearly channelling the visual language of Friedrich's paintings, his intentions were far more complex and subversive. By mimicking the visual idiom of abstraction and Minimalism yet anchoring it in the figurative world of a plunging horizon, he was undermining the focus on the two-dimensional picture-plane championed as an arena of abstraction by Clement Greenberg and many of the New York-based artists of the previous decades. At the same time, Richter deliberately selected views that were Romantic in their sense of distance and expanse, yet which nonetheless tapped into a sense of the banal. In Eifellandschaft (Straße), the signpost in the foreground is positioned in almost the same place, relatively, as the monk in Friedrich's Der Mönch am Meer of 1808-10, one of the pictures that Richter would have seen often in Berlin. This visual echo allows Richter to deflate the grandiose sense of awe and metaphysical wonder that was the focus of the Romantics. Instead, he immerses us in the visual world of contemporary Germany. By adopting the visual trickery of Friedrich in an image of a street and a road sign, he is highlighting the way that people cannot help but romanticise nature. As he has explained:
'Of course, 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 a our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice' (Richter, 1986, quoted in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 124). WP