"Behind Gursky's taste for the imposing clarity of unbroken parallel forms spanning a slender rectangle lies a rich inheritance of reductive aesthetics, from Friedrich to Newman to Richter to Donald Judd."
- P. Galassi, "Gursky's World," Andreas Gursky, ext. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 35
Andreas Gursky's photographs are large, bold, inspiring, and ravishing. They are vast and infinite in their detail and manage to capture more than our eyes can see, in clearer focus and with more saturation and intensity. His artistic vision is an intellectual form of social photography, provoking the viewer to reflect on the human condition and its heady promises to Modernism. Stock exchanges, packed arenas, harbors, busy factory floors, industrial-looking apartment buildings and midnight techno raves attended by thousands— Gursky's image making is emblematic of a time when globalization as a term came to mean something concrete and universal.
Executed on a monumental scale, Engadin II is an iconic and awe-inspiring landscape photograph from Gursky’s oeuvres, recapitulating a motif that he first photographed in 1995 in Engadin I. Taking the unadorned and unsullied image as its inspiration, Gursky’s Engadin II fits within the artist's ambition to create photographic images that capture how human lives are affected and even controlled by their environment, and the smallness of man and the immensity of the world. Furthering the artist’s on-going investigation into capturing a globalized view, this work acts as a visual record of man’s attempt to meandering, disappearing and blending into the nature, as Gursky captures phalanxes of skiers traversing through the heart of the glaciers and snow covered field. A long tradition in art history exists of capturing winter-time activities. One immediately is reminded of Pieter Breughel the Elder’s winter landscape genre scenes of the Dutch 17th century. Tiny figures skate around on a snow-covered ice field, a dusky winter sky settles over the village as the landscape recedes into the distance. Even the tiny skiers that dot the expansive canvas in Peter Doig’s Ski Jacket from 1994 in the collection of the Tate, London, exemplify some the Doig’s virtuosic paint techniques.
The wealth of fine detail in Engadin II means that while from a distance the picture appears schematic and almost abstract, on closer inspection the various elements and figures leap into focus. The camera’s aerial vantage point suggests an impossible angle that has been referred to as Gursky’s "God-like view": “I stand at a distance, like a person who comes from another world. I just record what I see” (A. Gursky, quoted in C. Squiers, "Concrete Reality," Ruhr Works, September 1988, p. 29). It is from the remarkably distant point of perspective that the artist effectively captures a harmonious, holistic view of the world. As Gursky once explained, “the camera's enormous distance from these figures means they become de-individualized so I am never interested in the individual but in the human species and its environment” (A. Gursky, quoted in V. Gomer, "I generally let things develop slowly," partially reproduced at www.postmedia.net, [accessed 7 April 2015]). An immersing, omniscient vision with a hint of sublimity, Gursky situates the viewer above all, as if we are just venturing beyond the picture plane. Indeed, Gursky is a master of composition. In Engadin II, this is exemplified not only by the vast vertical height but also by the distinct draw of the track of skiers up through the center of the pure snow towards to the top of the picture plane and culminating in snowy peaks off-set by crystal clear blue skies. The success of this extraordinary composition is reminiscent of the artist’s best known image, Rhein II. In this particularly iconic image of the Rhine river, Gursky achieves astonishing detail and dynamism through its expansive horizontal scale. Spanning the full width of the epic picture plane, the Rhine's captivating landscape appears vibrant with bands of bright, emerald green grass and slivery water, the ripples across the surface of the river illuminated with brilliant, hyper-real detail. Above the straight course of the river lies an atmospheric, blue-grey sky, thick with dense clouds, which almost bisects the composition, presenting a distant, unobtainable horizon far beyond the lush riverbank. One of the most powerful and profound depictions ever to be created of the Rhine, the photograph's unique scale draws an ineffable link to the actual natural landscape, inviting the viewer to cross over into its vivid picture plane.
As with all of Gursky’s great photographs, Engadin II best exemplifies his personal understanding of painting in the late twentieth century, with his unique relationship with tradition and most particularly Romanticism. The awesome spectacle of nature juxtaposed against lines of skiers and their shadows echoes to the imageries portrayed by great German Romantic painters of the 19th Century, and in this way Engadin II exudes the sense of the artist's relationship with not only the landscape but also offers a unifying atmosphere of men as a divine order of existence.
Indeed, one is immediately reminded of the Sublime in painting when viewing Gursky’s Engadin II. In particular, of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s Cross in the Mountains, known today as the Tetschen Altarpiece, which depicts jagged, stark cliffs illuminated by beams of light from the rising sun. At the summit of the mountains, a slight figure emerges—in fact Christ on the Cross, surrounded by expanses of nature. Though depicted in a large group, the skiers in Engadin II are, like the silhouette of Christ in the mountains, dwarfed by all-encompassing scale of the expanse of snow and climbing peaks of the mountains in the distance. In Joseph Mallard William Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps from 1812, a drastic revision of the History painting renders a diminutive war hero cowering beneath the triumph and potency of nature. The verticality of this work is reminiscent of the abstract sublime in 20th century painting, namely that of Barnett Newman’s zip paintings or Clyfford Still’s powerful canvases which evoke the struggles between man and nature. As Still once said of his work, “These are not paintings in the usual sense…they are life and death merging in fearful union.. they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation” (C. Still, Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960, New Haven, 1991, p. 21).
In his delicate heightening of formal and compositional arrangements, Engadin II reveals the power of photography, showing the world in a way that we may never experience it. The sheer depth of Gurksy’s perspective grants the viewer an almost panoramic vantage point; it is this sense of omniscient spectatorship that has come to define Gursky’s practice. Engadin II is a truly epic photograph, one of Gursky's most iconic images.