'My landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful'... 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' (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).
Lovingly dressed with gorgeous striations of differing tones of grey paint which build its thick surface, Italienische Landschaft was painted in 1966, at a pivotal moment in Gerhard Richter's artistic career. Dating from the year of some of his greatest Photo Paintings, like Ema (Nude on a Staircase), Ballet-Dancers and Lovers in the Forest, Italienische Landschaft shows the clearest indication of the direction his painting was about to take-- a direction which would define his enormous impact on late twentieth century art and beyond. Emerging from the shadows of his Pop art-inspired figurative images, Richter was embarking on a consummately post-modern exploration of the very nature of style in painting, dissecting every single approach that one can take to the canvas. While this is one of his earliest landscapes, it also dates from a period during which he began to blur the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, firstly by creating works that, despite figurative origins, had an increasingly formal quality. Whilst one can wonder at the beauty of this composition, its unusually high horizon line and the way that the eye travels over the landscape in the foreground towards the smouldering volcano at the top of the picture, one can also wonder at its abstract quality in the wondrously controlled texture which defines its surface and the infinite tones of grey which build its detail. In this same year he began his Colour Charts and would later move onto more constructive paintings like the Stadtbild paintings, then the Grey Paintings and eventually into the pure abstraction that this work prefigures. While Italienische Landschaft can be seen as a Photo Painting, then, it also provides a fascinating insight into the conceptual investigation that has fuelled so much of Richter's oeuvre, which itself has become such a formidable influence on art during the past five decades.
In Italienische Landschaft, Richter has taken a source image that is deliberately understated, and has rendered it in oil paint. Unlike many of his earlier Photo Paintings, this image is deliberately opaque: the various veil-like areas that combine to give the sense of a view receding towards the volcano in the distance have been painted in tones and shades of grey upon grey, meaning that they take on a certain abstract quality that is bolstered by Richter's use of a high horizon that allows him to fill most of the canvas with the landscape itself. This, then, is not a mere landscape: it is a painting that explores the role of representation in the modern world, that dissects and analyses the very mechanics of seeing in our multi-media, image-saturated age. 'Photography altered ways of seeing and thinking,' Richter explained only shortly before Italienische Landschaft was painted: 'Photographs were regarded as true, paintings as artificial. The painted picture was no longer credible; its representation froze into immobility, because it was not authentic but invented' (Richter, 1964-65, quoted in ibid., p. 31).
In this work, Richter has exposed this strange relationship by reproducing a photo in paint-- 'I am practising photography by other means: I'm not producing paintings that remind you of a photograph but producing photographs' (Richter in interview with Rolf Schön, 1972, in ibid., p.73). He is therefore exploring the tension between the subjective realm of painting, and indeed of abstract painting in particular, and the supposedly 'truthful' photograph, creating a fascinating ontological tension between the two in this paradoxical landscape. He has added to the fragmentation of information, to the detachment of his technique, by selecting as a source an image that is not his own, but is possibly culled from some newspaper report of a volcano's activity. For this picture predates by two years Richter's own trips abroad, which would in later years sometimes provide the material for his landscapes. Where those later works, then, would achieve an extra layer of subjectivity through that association with his own life and memories, in Italienische Landschaft Richter retains a telling distance that reinforces the picture's conceptual credentials, highlighting the chasm between the so-called Capitalist Realism embraced by him and Polke on one side, and commercial, brash American Pop on the other.
Romanticism, encapsulated so perfectly in the works of Friedrich, involved the imposition of human emotion on depictions of the motif. In a sense, it is precisely this subjectivity to which Richter alluded when he said that the painted picture is no longer credible. It is a subjective fiction. In Italienische Landschaft, Richter continues to adopt his paradoxical perspective, exploiting his projection in a vision that, fading between figuration and abstraction in its mist-like rendering, nonetheless evokes Friedrich's The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, placing us in the position of the Romantic viewer. The fact that the picture shows the distinctive flat peak of a volcano adds a quintessentially Richterian aspect to this image, though, adding an undertone of violence and threat that hints that this is a memento mori as much as a celebration of Nature. As Richter has said: '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 ibid., pp. 63-64).