'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' (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).
If Gerhard Richters grand Post-Modern project of the de-construction of painting found its true expression in the 1980s, it was in the latter part of this decade that the inter-relationship between all of his different painterly modes found its mature style in colour. Executed in 1987, Zwei Bäume is a sublime example of his devotion to and development of the history of landscape painting. Focusing on the space between the two trees of the title, the proportions of this painting are such that there is an intensity in the brushstrokes and the application of colour which creates an extraordinary friction between abstraction and figuration. Guided into this space by the specific placement of the trees, a profound sense of infinity opens up for the viewer. The sky attains a silken sheen enhanced by a special medium, making it glow and hinting at the spectral forms of clouds and other figurative elements in its midst. The sky meets the green landscape in an ambiguous, hazy territory; the merging of the two invokes a horizontal tribute to Barnett Newman's celebrated 'zips', a reference that was even more accentuated in his monumental landscape Chinon from the same year which is now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Richter thus forcibly brings the viewers attention to the construction of the picture, of the image, of the artifice.
1987, the year that Zwei Bäume was painted, marked the culmination of the landscape theme in Richters work. Indeed, he painted a number of landscapes that year, including two other versions of the same view shown in this picture, which came from a deliberately cropped photograph in his Atlas compendium of source images. Within these three images, the way that he moves the distance between the trees and changes the focus of the composition and the treatment reveals the way in which he is treating this figurative view with almost abstract intentions. It is no coincidence that 1987 was also a triumphant year for Richter's Abstracts and that the two genres, which seem at first so diametrically opposed, should have an intense interrelationship. This is evident in the emphatic focus on the brushwork in Zwei Bäume, which is highlighted all the more by the contrast between the glossy varnish that renders the sky so luminous and ethereal and the matt substantiality of the greenery.
During this period, Richter preferred to exhibit his Abstracts and landscapes together, underscoring their dependence on each other. As well as providing an intriguing counterpoint to the landscapes, the Abstracts also revealed to what extent pictures such as Zwei Bäume were constructs, amalgamations of brushstrokes every bit as arbitrary as the squeegeed colours of any Abstraktes Bild.
That interrelationship is all the more clear in the Abstracts of 1987 as they often show portions of the soft, photorealist background similar to that seen in Zwei Bäume, yet superimposed with the gestural marks of abstraction. Zwei Bäume was the first of the group of three paintings; however, the group was directly preceded by Marcay, featuring a chaotic swirl of soft-focus foliage that looked like a blurred abstraction over a similar landscape.
Landscape had long featured in Richter's repertoire; as early as 1963 he had painted Schloss Neuschwanstein, now in the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden. That work, and many of the landscapes that followed it in the subsequent years, used appropriated images, often exploring complex historical and political undercurrents, forming part of Richter's German incarnation of Pop Art. Thus, his landscapes were culled from guidebooks, magazines and newspaper articles. However, towards the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, in part because he himself was travelling more and further, he began to turn to his own photographs of landscape as source material, removing the problematic knowingness and references of his more pointed early pictures. Many of these images appear to show not the jadedness of Capitalist Realism, but instead a love of painting and a love of landscape itself. In an interview only eight years ago, Richter explained that he still turned to landscape as a form of solace after creating his large-scale Abstracts, revealing the personal nature of his relationship to the genre as well as the important crossover between these genres.
At the same time, Richter linked his own turn towards 'beautiful' landscapes to his paintings after Titian: both were attempts to provoke others, while also challenging Theodor Adorno's much-accepted proclamation that to write a beautiful poem after Auschwitz was barbaric. In his landscapes, Richter was investigating whether at long last humanity could lay claim once more to beauty. 'On the one hand, it was a polemic against this annoying modernist development that I hated,' he explained. 'And, of course, the assertion of my freedom: "Why shouldnt I paint like this and who could tell me not to?" And then the affirmation was naturally there, the wish to paint paintings as beautiful as those by Caspar David Friedrich, to claim that this time is not lost but possible, that we need it, and that it is good' (G. Richter (2001), quoted in R. Storr, 'Interview with Gerhard Richter', pp. 287-309, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat, ed. Storr, New York, 2002, p. 302). That beauty is present in the sweeping landscape of Zwei Bäume and in its elegant simplicity, comprising as it does only the two trees of the title, a swathe of green and a hazy sky. Richter has created a picture that vibrates with references to the Romantic tradition so beloved in Germany, not least in the paintings of Friedrich, and which echoes the hazy sense of distance, the lush sense of greenery and the awe of the Sublime. However, Richter also explores an intriguing undercurrent: man's constant striving to cope with the inherent, unthinking force of Nature, which lurks even within this manicured vista.
'Just because landscape is beautiful. It's probably the most terrific thing there is [...] I felt like painting something beautiful'
(G. 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).