"18 February 1986. 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, to reveal only the appalling horror and ugliness.
"Nature is so inhuman that it is not even criminal. It is everything that we must basically overcome and reject -- because, for all our own superabundant horrendousness, cruelty and vileness, we are still capable of producing a spark of hope which we can also call love. Nature has none of this. Its stupidity is absolute." (G. Richter, "Notes 1986," in The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 124).
It is not as if nature is the only subject in Gerhard Richter's work. He epitomizes the postmodern approach, roaming freely amongst all possible styles and media. Indeed, his abstractions are among the most accomplished and dramatic of any artist of the past quarter century. However, Richter simply feels liberated with regard to the modes and subjects available to an artist, notwithstanding his apparently promiscuous approach. Yet nature always remains his bête noir. The statement cited here, written only months after creating Buschdorf, indicates the deeply complex character of the theme of landscape to his thinking.
On one hand, Buschdorf exemplifies the astonishing beauty that so often typifies Richter's landscape paintings. Here is a tranquil, even placid, view of nature. The grass at the lower section of the painting establishes the foreground stage, after which the eye steps side to side among the trees and bushes until finally arriving in the distant space. Beyond the furthest tree, in the center of the composition, is the exalted expanse of sky that is so familiar in Richter's landscapes. This is a German Romantic view of nature, a tradition best exemplified by Casper David Friedrich, in which depictions of landscape signify the glory of God. Such natural and unspoiled beauty is beheld and longed for by human beings in the pictures, and is intended to inspire a sense of profound awe in the viewer of the painting, too. Humanity is small by comparison, and flawed by implication. Richter is quite adept at producing such effects, and his interest in the theme runs throughout his career. German Romanticism is, without question, one of the most powerful of traditions in German art and thought, and Richter's contemplation of it reflects his artistic approach.
But Richter's outlook is always provocative. As his comment, cited above, indicates, his landscapes are "untruthful." The trees were not haphazardly placed by God, but were touched by human hands, that is, arranged to produce this spatial composition. In other words, the scene is more Poussin than Friedrich, that is, more humanly determined than divinely created. Instead of ringing with nature fully and wildly resplendent, the scene, as the title tells us, is a village, and a suburban one at that. Further domesticating what might have been an awesome evocation is the fact that here as elsewhere, Richter has employed a snapshot, not God, as his inspiration. All this does not produce a completely mundane view, only a modulated, equivocated vision.
Richter is both ambivalent and diabolical about nature. Nature is virtually his adversary. It seduces him and leaves him gasping with longing; he wants dearly to revere it. But, finally, he is ignored and abandoned by it. The strength and richness of the landscape tradition in art only abets this complex drama. That Richter has persistently turned to landscape throughout his career adds to the force of this theme in his work. Though arguing against it, he is grief stricken and nostalgic. The landscape is, arguably, his magnum opus.
Fig. 1 Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Solitary Tree, 1822, Berlin, Nationalgalerie
Fig. 2 Source photograph
Fig. 3 Richter, Wiesental, 1985, The Museum of Modern Art