‘In his Seascapes, we are not explicitly positioned on the border of land and sea, and all that remains is sea, sky and a horizon line between them. One would suppose that Richter pared everything away to create immense space for the viewer, so that one could project oneself into the scene and enjoy the purest kind of solitude. Imagine being alone, floating above the water to face the waves and the majesty of the clouds above ... This is certainly the desire that Richter incites, but it is also one that he frustrates’ (M. Godfrey, ‘Damaged Landscapes’ in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2012, p. 81).
‘[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).
‘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).
Painted in 1969, a landmark year in the development of Gerhard Richter’s mature practice, Seestück (oliv bewölkt) is a majestic photo-realist painting, which presents a haunting seascape of sublime natural beauty. Beneath a hazy panorama of nebulous cloud, the foreboding open water draws the viewer’s eye into the depths of the painting, towards the distant, uninterrupted line of the horizon that divides the composition into two discrete, yet simultaneously interwoven halves. At once beautiful and menacing, Richter deftly translates onto canvas the ominous atmosphere of the still waves with carefully feathered brushstrokes in a subtle verdaille palette, his washes of colour building to create the mist shrouded ocean with a unique transparency. Created amidst a storm of radical protest and political activity, Seestück (oliv bewölkt) appears at first the least radical of gestures, deliberately eschewing the climate of politics that was taking over daily life for a vision of the natural world: a source of marvel and of fear, fundamentally free from narrative. But 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). Combining mismatched images of cloud and sea to create a fictive landscape of unparalleled emptiness, Richter’s seascape is a masterful illusion that treads the boundary between abstraction and representation. Upon first glance, the painting radiates an almost transcendent sense of the breathtaking grandeur of nature. However, on closer inspection the illusion is shattered by the incongruity of the upper and lower portions of the canvas, divided into olive-toned, light infused clouds and dappled, inky waves. Seestück (oliv bewölkt) belongs to a small group of seminal photo-realist seascapes, the majority of which are now housed within international museum collections, including Seestück – Welle, 1969 (Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth), Seestück (bewölkt), 1969 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), Seestück (Morgenstimmung), 1969 (Musée départemental d’art contemporain, Rochechouart), and Seestück (bewölkt), 1969 (Neues Museum, Nurenberg).
Seestück (oliv bewölkt) is situated at the advent of Richter’s colour investigations into landscape. In 1968, just one year before the conception of the present work, Richter and his family spent two weeks on holiday in Corsica. Armed with his camera, he captured roll after roll of photographs, which on his return to Germany became the source material for the Corsica paintings. With their panoramic vantages and wide-open horizons, these works prefigured the compositions of Richter’s subsequent landscapes and seascapes, abandoning the black-and-white palette that had thus far characterised his photo-realist work for an atmospheric chromatic range. For Richter, these early colour panoramas represented a determined retreat from the politicized art that surrounded him in the late-1960s. Asked in 1970 what had inspired him to make them, he replied evasively, ‘just because landscape is beautiful, it’s probably the most terrific thing there is … I felt like painting something beautiful’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Rolf Gunther Dienst, 1970’ in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 64). In this way, Richter’s practice entered into a dialogue with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German Romantic, salvaging painting as a medium and asserting his right to address any subject matter or artistic movement at a time when the tradition of painting had been declared largely obsolete. 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., Sprengel Museum Hannover, 1998, p. 12).
Evocative of Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic Monk by the Sea from 1809, Seestück (oliv bewölkt) is critically different in its approach to humanity’s role in nature. In Friedrich’s compelling masterpiece a lone figure surveys a vista of low, rolling cloud, gazing out into a dark abyss-like sea which extends infinitely before him. Friedrich places man at the heart of his composition, engulfed in solitude before the overwhelming power of the natural world. In Seestück (oliv bewölkt), by contrast, Richter portrays natural phenomena without any of the Romantic symbolic amplification invoked by Friedrich. 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 painting. As Richter has said of his seascapes and 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 mindless: the total antithesis of ourselves, absolutely inhuman’ (G. Richter, ‘Notes 1986’, in D. Elger, H. U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Text, London 2009, p. 158).
Nearly all of Richter’s seascapes depict collaged motifs, drawing together independent source photographs of sea and sky in a single image. The result is an illusory image which aims for beauty outside of ordinary human experience. In Seestück (oliv bewölkt) these distinct sources are intricately meshed together with fine feathery brushstrokes that evoke the artist’s earlier blurred black-and-white landscapes. Through the looming clouds a hidden source of luminescence casts a glow upon the sea, which is threatened by the encroaching ashen clouds drifting in from the right hand side of the canvas. The fictive quality of these weather effects serves to further alienate the viewer from nature. Engaging in the sublime economy of J.M.W. Turner’s marine paintings, on closer inspection Richter’s Seestück (oliv bewölkt) dissolves into an abstract, painterly composition of smoky brushstrokes, rendering the view more unobtainable and emphasising nature’s profound unaccountability. As Richter observed in 1981, ‘Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible: giving it form and bringing it within reach’ (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. 176). Encapsulating this process with his manipulated landscapes, Seestück (oliv bewölkt) constitutes an important conceptual and technical bridge between the photo-paintings and the Abstraktes Bilder. 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).