‘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).
‘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’’ (G. 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).
‘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).
‘Their significance lies, not in a critical mass but in the prominent position they occupy in the artist’s oeuvre, and in how he thrusts them into dialog with the other work. In several scenes- conceptual, aesthetic, and technical- they would serve as a bridge from the photo-paintings to the abstract paintings soon to come’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 173).
‘I don’t mistrust reality of which I know next to nothing. I mistrust our model of reality conveyed to us by our senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed’ G. Richter in an interview with Rolf Schön, 1972, reprinted in: H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter. The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p.73).
A sublime vista at the confluence of two headlands in the middle of Lake Lucerne, Vierwaldstätter See is the largest of a distinct series of four views of the lake painted by Richter in 1969. Purchased by the present owner in 1973 from the artist after the work was included in the Grand Art Exhibition held in the Haus der Kunst Munich, the work represents a landmark period in Richter’s oeuvre. During the early to mid 1960s Richter had made his name with his black and white photo-paintings, 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. Balancing the composition on the knife-edge between figuration and abstraction, Vierwaldstätter See in many ways prefigures the seminal series of seascapes completed in 1969-70, and the two series together can be seen to represent the concepts which run throughout his oeuvre to today. Faced with the panorama, the viewer’s eye is carried along the passage of softened, almost smoky clouds, around the darkened headland onto a distant and illusive horizon, at once inviting the viewer into the landscape whilst at the same time rendering a view that is entirely unobtainable. As Robert Storr states ‘the viewer is thus left in a state of perpetual limbo bracketed by exigent pleasures and an understated but unshakable nihilism. Those who approach Richter’s landscapes with a yearning for the exotic or the pastoral are greeted by images that first intensify that desire and then deflect it’ (R. Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, pp. 65-66). Meticulously painted, with feathered brushstrokes deliberately visible as evidence of Richter’s process, Vierwaldstätter See acts as a precursor to the sweep of the squeegee which would later define his abstract works. Emerging through the delicate brushstrokes, layers of midnight blue deepen Richter’s grisaille palette and create an intense surface that radiates with enduring natural beauty.
One of the largest lakes in Switzerland, Lake Lucerne has an elusive set of contours that has continued to inspire painters through the ages most notably J.M.W. Turner paintings of the Rigi. For this painting Richter appears to have chosen a view from Vitznau, through the narrow strait at the centre of the lake, between the two rocky promontories called respectively Untere and Obere Nase. Within this apparently photo-real view Richter has conjured an extraordinary atmosphere that dissolves in and out of focus with an ambient haze that creates an almost ethereal environment, recognisably Lake Lucerne yet eluding any exact detail or location. Frequently returning to Switzerland throughout his life, Richter’s landscape is a poetic representation of a well-loved destination. Playing with the conventions of the romantic sublime, Richter in Vierwaldstätter See simultaneously and emphatically refutes the historicized associations of landscape painting, redefining humanity’s role within, and in relation to, nature.
1960S – REVOLUTIONARY YEARS
Painted in 1969, Vierwaldstätter See emerges from a deeply creative moment in the artist’s career and it was in this year that the sheer multiplicity of Richter’s practice became apparent to the public. In his first solo show in a public institution at the Gegenverkehr e.V. in Aachen in 1969, Richter displayed his new forays into abstraction alongside landscape and figurative works based on photographic sources. Included in this show were early photo paintings such as Falbarer Trockner (Folding Dryer) (1962), colour charts such as 192 Farben (192 colours) 1966 and abstracted townscapes such as Stadtbild Paris 1968. Deliberately hung without any sense of chronology or theme, in many respects mirroring his own indifference to the conventional matters of style and subject, this show demonstrated the multiplicity of Richter’s practice in these fertile years.
In 1969, Richter moved away from the straightforward photo paintings of his earlier years. Developing the way in which he initially obfuscated the photographic image, by 1969 Richter demonstrated a far more nuanced and skillful approach to his continued investigation of representation, figuration and abstraction. As part of this process Richter embarked on an experimental series of landscapes. Varying in scenery and painting techniques, the first were loose painterly explorations of aerial photographs of cities and townscapes and later, mountain landscapes and park scenes with their hard-edge textured paint surfaces. In the months leading up to the creation of Vierwaldstätter See Richter produced a series of Swiss Alpine landscapes. With their crisp detail these works are a radical counterpoint to his later interpretations of the alpine landscape visible in Vierwaldstätter See. In this respect Vierwaldstätter See with its more mature, almost luxurious surface, can be seen to resonate more closely with his romanticized, nearly abstract, seascapes that Richter went on to paint towards the end of 1969 and through to 1970.
THE LANDSCAPE EMBODIED IN A BRUSHSTROKE
The artist’s facility with his medium and his technical skill mark the Vierwaldstätter See series and the seascapes of this period as some of his most accomplished and conceptually innovative. The rich, almost velvet surface of Vierwaldstätter See and depth it provides to the composition, shows the development in Richter’s style away from the German pop photo paintings of the early 1960s. This technical ability meant that at the same time as evoking German Romanticism, Richter managed to create paintings that were entirely radical, standing as subtle and subversive responses to tradition. Vierwaldstätter See appears to have been brilliantly captured in movement, the artist visualising the image as if from the window of a passing car or airplane. The sense of transience, of a view captured in a fleeting moment, reiterates our own alienation from nature.
In carrying out the composition, Richter has manipulated the surface of the paint by dragging a dry brush across the canvas while the paint is still wet. This ultra-fne horizontal brushwork creates a hypnotic effect which becomes more apparent as you approach the canvas, with each individual brushstroke becoming visible as an individual element of a coherent whole. Stepping back from the work allows these elements to melt away revealing the softened edges of the lake’s surface. The edges are blurred to the point of abstraction such that the waterline and the dramatic mountainous shore blur in the delicate featherlike brushstrokes and subtle chromatic variation. Richter’s emphatic focus on the brushstroke renders a complex, almost luxurious surface. Areas of gloss mark the physical surface of the lake’s shoreline which has so often inspired painters throughout history.
Richter’s unique painting method strengthens the tension and ambivalence between painting and photography, abstraction and reality. The photographic source is skillfully recreated whilst at the same time brushstrokes marks remain visible, posing a constant question of the viewer as to the nature of the image they are faced with. The subtle blurring of the image is a deliberate strategy in Richter’s photo paintings as a means of creating distance between the viewer and the representation of nature, emphasizing that neither painting, nor photography, can bridge the gap between reality and experience.
THE ROMANTIC SUBLIME
For Richter, his early landscapes represented a determined departure from the politicized painting and the avant-gardism of the late 1960s. As he explained, ‘just because landscape is beautiful, it’s probably the most terrific thing there is…I felt like painting something beautiful’ (G. Richter quoted in R. Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, pp. 65-66). In this departure from the contemporary tides in painting, Richter was engaging with the legacy of eighteenth and nineteenth century German Romanticism and asserting his right to create art that addressed any subject matter or artistic tradition. Through this assertion works like Vierwaldstätter See demonstrate the artist’s continued efforts to salvage painting as a medium, skillfully depicting the sublime through delicate layers of paint. The subtle fusion between the painted image and the reality of the landscape ultimately mean that Richter’s landscape paintings possess the same conceptual nuances that unite much of the artist’s oeuvre.
We can particularly see the affinity between Vierwaldstätter See and the dramatic mountain landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, and rightly a comparison is frequently made between the two artists. As Elger notes, 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. Richter has himself commented on this legacy, affirming the German romantic influence. 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).
Nevertheless, while Richter was clearly channeling the visual language of Friedrich’s paintings, his intentions were far more complex and subversive. Vierwaldstätter See is deliberately imbued with the Romantic connection through its sense of distance and expanse, yet with one key difference. Whereas Romantic paintings often meet the viewer halfway, usually by means of a surrogate figure in the landscape such as the turned figure in The Monk by the Sea, Richter’s landscapes in contrast remain uninhabited. In this way Richter dramatically redefines the historicized understanding of humanity’s role in nature. In Vierwaldstätter See 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. As Richter has said of his 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 inhuman’. (G. Richter, quoted in J. Nestegrad (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Art of the Impossible - Paintings 1964-1998, Oslo 1999). By this means Richter used his landscape paintings as ‘visual models of a lost truth’ and thus they can be seen directly to complement his abstract works which he has described as ‘fictive models’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter Landscapes, exh cat., Sprengel Museum, Hannover, 1998, p. 21). Richter himself has stated ‘For me there is no difference between a landscape and an abstract painting. In my opinion the term “realism” makes no sense’ (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 273).
In his efforts to salvage painting, examining the way in which it had become seemingly obsolete in the age of the photograph, it is of no coincidence that Richter was drawn to the vivid landscapes of the great Swiss lakes, in particular Lake Lucerne. The dramatic, awe inspiring mountains, combined with the lake’s placid surface gave rise to an inspirational moment for many artists, including Alexandre Calame, Albert Bierstadt, John Ruskin and most notably J.M.W. Turner. For Turner, the Swiss lakes inspired a series of works which embody the tradition of the romantic sublime. Like many artists before him, Turner initially headed south in search of light and in 1819 travelled to Italy, later visiting Switzerland in the 1840s where he was captivated by the sublime beauty of the mountain landscape. In many ways this can be seen to resonate with Richter’s own travels in 1969, beginning further south in Corsica where the study of light dominates his works, and then later to Switzerland where he seems to have encountered the same sense of awe and sublime as Turner did over a century before him.
ATLAS: THROUGH THE ARTIST’S LENS
It was also in 1969 that Richter first began to compile his photographic source material, known now as Atlas that would soon become a referential touchstone throughout his career. This ever-growing subjective anthology of photos, some found by and others taken by Richter, was first exhibited in 1970 under the title Studies 1965-1970 at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, and later would be formally exhibited under the Atlas title in 1972 in Utrecht. Since these early years Richter has added to and exhibited this shifting, swelling flow of source material, such that it stands as a fascinating counterpoint to his paintings.
Although Richter only began to compile Atlas in 1969, his use of photographs as his source material began in 1962 when no longer satisfied with his earlier abstract work he turned to paintings based on found photographs. In doing so, Richter was looking for a new means of painting, ‘free from “literary effect”, historical bias and the decorum of traditional composition’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 49). Appearing initially as a European response to the American Pop Art movement, the artist began by mining images from newspapers, books and other published materials, rendering them in cool, painted monochrome. Richter surmised that working from a photo in this way was the perfect means of escape: ‘a photograph - unless the art photographers have ‘fashioned’ it is simply the best picture I can imagine... it is a perfect; it does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous and unconditional... This is something that just has to be incorporated into painting’ (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 49). It was not until 1968 that Richter began to use his own photographs, collecting colour pictures of his first holiday abroad with his family to Corsica.
Building on these earlier photopaintings, Richter’s first colour investigations of the natural landscape began in 1968, just one year before he created Vierwaldstätter See. Buoyed by his recent exhibition success, his recent appointment to professorship at Hamburg Art Academy and birth of his daughter Betty, Richter travelled to Corsica on his first real family vacation. Armed with his camera, he captured numerous rolls of film, which he later translated into paintings. These works contain the same wide, open horizon trailing into the distance and low, dramatic sky as is captured in Vierwaldstätter See, simultaneously invoking and puncturing both abstraction and also Romanticism.
REALITY AND REPRESENTATION
Vierwaldstätter See is a masterful rendition of a Swiss alpine vista that vibrates with references to the Romantic tradition so beloved in Germany. Low clouds nestle between brooding headlands in a dramatic swirl of grey and midnight blue, with a hazy sense of the vast distance in the horizon which intentionally raises the romantic notion of the sublime. It is a masterful study of light and landscape, tone and form. Delicate feathered brushstrokes evoking a photographic source, create an intense illusion of reality, but one that is distant and elusive, that nature can never fulfill. Executed at the end of the 1960s, Vierwaldstätter See comes from an intensely creative moment in Richter’s career when he was investigating for the first time the unities between abstract and figurative painting. 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, Dusseldorf 2005, p. 33).