‘[The Stadtbilder] are reflections on the new face of Europe and on the other surviving remnants of the old one’
(R. Storr, ‘Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting’, in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 42).
‘Richter is no longer concerned solely with copying the image. Through his manner of representation, Richter wants to awaken deep-seated emotions and associations in the viewer, who may not have been aware of them before’
(R. G. Dienst , Pop Art. Eine kritische Information, Wiesbaden 1965, p. 70).
‘Towns and mountains from a bird’s-eye view (abandonment of the concept of interesting content and illusionistic painting; a spot of paint should be a spot of paint, and the motif needn’t have a message or allow for interpretation)’
(G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger and H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 53).
Executed in 1968, the present work is an early example of the Stadtbilder (Townscapes) that represent a critical turning point in Gerhard Richter’s oeuvre. Seen from a distance, it offers a stark, monochrome close-up of an aerial cityscape. On approach, however, Richter’s seemingly rigid geometries dissolve into a blurred vortex of rich impasto, luxuriantly swept and swirled across the picture plane. Created between 1968 and 1970, the Stadtbilder represent a pivotal body of work, situated between Richter’s early photo-paintings and the abstract canvases that would come to dominate his practice from the 1970s onwards. Moving away from the portraits and quotidian objects that had defined his photorealist work, the latter part of the decade saw Richter veer towards increasingly abstract subject matter. Alongside the Colour Charts, the Grey paintings, the seascapes and the cloudscapes, the Stadtbilder play an important role within this trajectory. Their grid-like structures, exaggerated zoom-effects and skewed vantage points challenge the legibility of their figurative subjects, transforming them into alien visions of reality. The meticulously-detailed precision of the photo-paintings is replaced by bold, tactile gestures that magnify the blurred distortions inherent in these earlier works. In the broad brushstrokes and formal fluidity of Stadtbild, we see the first hints of the liberated abstract idiom that would come to occupy his practice over the following decades.
Largely based on photographs culled from architectural magazines and documented in the artist’s compendium Atlas, Richter has described the Stadtbilder as ‘reflections on the new face of Europe and on the other surviving remnants of the old one’ (R. Storr, ‘Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting’, in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 42). As a child, Richter had experienced the aftermath of Dresden’s firebombing, and it is therefore fitting that many of the Stadtbilder – in particular those that depict zoomed-out views of sprawling urban infrastructure – recall the aerial photographs of Europe’s bombardment during the Second World War. In others, however – including the present work – Richter captures the pristine concrete edifices that sprung up in its wake. The buildings that came to define the post-War architectural landscape brought with them a sense of utopian promise. Towering, rigid and indestructible, they were symbols of recovery and aspiration: the architecture of the future. By the late 1960s, however, this vision was already beginning to fade. Grey, uniform and faceless, these beacons of hope harboured a profound sense of loss: poignant reminders of a history that could never be restored. Richter’s deliberate abstraction of these buildings captures this very dynamic, placing their idealism at a tantalising distance. As structure breaks down into a liminal mass of paint, all sense of function and purpose dissipates. The building becomes an illusion forever beyond our grasp.
In this regard, the Stadtbilder share much in common with the subversive romanticism of Richter’s seascapes, mountainscapes and cloudscapes from this period. These subjects, too, were once symbols of hope for Germany, enshrined by painters of the nineteenth century as emblems of awe-inspiring magnitude. However, in Richter’s hands, their grandeur collapses before our eyes: like the Stadtbilder, their photographic verisimilitude crumbles into an intractable mesh of brushstrokes, revealing the artificial nature of their construction. In a statement about the cityscapes, Richter resolves to abandon the concept of ‘illusionistic painting’. ‘[A] spot of paint should be a spot of paint, and the motif needn’t have a message or allow for interpretation’, he writes (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger and H. U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 53). Just as Richter’s landscapes withhold their promise of sublimation, so too do the Stadtbilder continually deflect our gaze. As abstraction subsumes the optimism of their steadfast geometric forms, Richter casts doubt upon the entire concept of visual representation. The image becomes unattainable; all that remains is painting itself. It is this illusion – of a reality perpetually beyond the reaches of art – that would come to form the backbone of his subsequent abstract practice.