Gerhard Richter began to paint Romantic subjects such as colourful landscapes, seascapes and cloud studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the purely selfish reason that he wanted "to paint beautiful pictures." Responding to a long standing Romantic tradition in modern German art that begins with the 19th Century landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, Richter's carefully rendered landscapes concentrate on the same "sublime" elements of nature as those so lovingly evoked by Friedrich to suggest the presence of the divine in Nature. However, whereas Friedrich emphasises the pantheism of Nature, Richter seeks to subvert such an emotive response and to reveal it for what it is by emphasising that such a Romantic interpretation of Nature is, like everything else, merely an approximation of reality that has been constructed in the human mind--what Richter calls a "model".
Venedig (Treppe) ("Venice (Steps)") is a seemingly simple summer landscape that evokes a sense of the calm and sublime peace to be found in nature in a way that is completely intentional on that artist's part but also wholly artificial. Painted in 1985 this charming landscape is based on a photograph Richter took of his wife at the time, sitting on the steps overlooking the Venetian lagoon during a visit to the floating city in 1983. Richter painted several pictures based on photographs he had taken in Venice, but Venedig (Treppe) is the only one in which a figure appears.
Seated in a contemplative pose at the top of the steps overlooking the lagoon, the figure of his wife--echoing the boy in Seurat's masterpiece Une baignade, Asnières, 1883-4--is silhouetted against the radiant light of the calm water. Like so many of Friedrich's paintings of figures overlooking the sea, she is a lone human presence lost in the mystical stillness of the ocean and the sublimity of nature. The composition is almost geometrically constructed with land clearly divided from the sea and the sea from the sky in a series of sharp straight lines that lend this work something of the qualities of Richter's artificially constructed seascapes of the early 1970s. The sharp angles and the powerful perspective that all derive from the position Richter took in order to photograph the scene also help to stress the notion of division that runs repeatedly throughout this picture.
In order to lay bare the fictional nature of the image, Richter perversely counterbalances the angular geometry and sharp clarity of the original photograph by reproducing the scene in paint with a deliberately feathery touch that imitates the soft focus and blurring often found in photography. This intentional subversion of the clarity and objectivity of the original photograph emphasises the artificiality of the processes by which such an image is produced and also of the sentiments and emotions that such a romantic scene evokes.
In this way, despite its seeming Romanticism and sentimentality Venedig (Treppe) is an attack on the very things it seems to portray. It is a manicured and artificial image of the natural elements clearly partitioned from one another and framed by the artist's eye/camera into a geometrically ordered composition. In this purely subjective and artificial way Richter exposes the artifice of our conception of Nature.
"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 plays 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 our projection; and we can switch it off at a moments 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 is coeval with us, and which we can also call love (this has nothing to do with unconscious, bestial, mammalian nurturing behaviour). Nature has none of this. Its stupidity is absolute." (G. Richter, Notes, 1986, cited in Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting, London, 1995, p. 124).