Wolken (Stimmung), painted in 1970, is a contemporary continuation of the Romantic tradition, but one that is marked with the knowing subjectivity of the artist. Richter's skyscape is vast, dwarfing the viewer, and as such instills in us a sense of awe. There is a sense in which Richter has taken on Caspar David Friedrich's legacy, giving us a taste of the magnificence of our world, of creation. Here, in the clouds, in the sun that mystically peeks through them, we are treated to a vision of the sublime as it has manifested itself in reality.
In taking this subject matter, Richter has dallied with the Romantic, a factor that has repeatedly recurred throughout his career. In his earliest landscapes, dating from the years immediately before Wolken (Stimmung) was painted, Richter was overt in his interest in the sublime and in nature, showing an adherence to Romanticism that is not entirely pervaded by the cynicism so often associated with his work. As he himself said, after years of images culled from the press and deliberately mediocre photographs, he was seeking something more: 'landscape is beautiful. It's probably the most terrific thing there is. I felt like painting something beautiful' (Richter, interview with R. G. Dienst, 1970, quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, ed. H.-U. Obrist, trans. David Britt, London, 1995, p. 64). The beauty with which Richter was beginning to fill some of his paintings during this period was all the more striking because he had begun to use color more often. Despite the limited palette in Wolken (Stimmung), it is clear that Richter has embraced colour, all the more interesting a factor as this was also the period in which he was beginning to explore monochromes, having already created many of his Color Charts.
This intense disparity in Richter's oeuvre, the almost paradoxical extremes of subject matter with which he worked, in fact cut to the heart of his art. It is only when looking at these other works that the viewer is assured that, as well as an exploration of the sublime, Wolken (Stimmung) forms part of Richter's wider agenda of artistic exploration. The early Color Charts, amongst other paintings, explored painting in a seemingly detached way. Some of Richter's early works appear to be the deliberately cold creations of an artist determined to reduce the role of the artist to that of a machine, and likewise to manipulate reactions in his viewers. While Richter's earlier works revealed his experimentation with photography, with turning himself into a mere extension of the camera as he laboriously reproduced found images, these landscapes, seascapes and cloudscapes revealed a genuine love of beauty, an appreciation of nature. However much Richter was detached from these vistas by using photography as the go-between in his creation of these images, it is clear that rather than cynically creating images of the Romantic landscape or the sublime, he himself has been affected by the nature of what he has painted.
This marks an important turn in Richter's art, or rather the emergence of an undervalued side to his work. For decades, Richter's work was often understood and interpreted by critics as being a cold assault on the very heart of art. Even the title of his own notes and interviews added to the sense of the cynical artist: The Daily Practice of Painting. Likewise, his seminal interviews with Benjamin Buchloh augmented the sense of a master-craftsman with the mind of an extreme art critic. While this was all convenient for an intellectual reading of Richter's art, it neglected a whole other aspect, namely Richter's own paradoxical status as a painter. Richter's assault on art is not that of a calculating iconoclast, but is an exploration of his own vocation and of his own problems when faced with the task of painting. When he painted Titian's Annunciation, for instance, it was not as a cynical exercise in concepts of beauty, but instead because he loved that picture. This simple, essentially human, understanding of Richter's painting was in many ways swept under the critics' carpet until the recent retrospective of his work curated by Robert Storr. Even his exhibition subtitle, Forty Years of Painting, hints at the painterly aspect to Richter's work that Storr sought to reveal after lying almost unrecognized for so long.
Rather than being polarized, being either 'for' or 'against' art, Richter cannot be tied down to one definition. He is both cynic and painter, living up to F. Scott Fitzgerald's maxim that 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function'. This is precisely what Richter does in his art. He is both artist and critic. He is subjective and objective, and it is this very tension that results in such perplexing and absorbing pictures, works which leapfrog contradictory ideas through our minds as we try to ascertain whether or not he means what he paints. If there was a simple answer, his art would be glib; there is not, and instead, more than almost any other artist in the Post-War period, Richter has managed to capture one of the emotional and intellectual issues central to his life in thought-provoking paintings which, as well as being beautiful, we know he actually enjoyed painting. Wolken (Stimmung) is one of these--at once cynical Pop reproduction of a photograph, mock abstract sprawl of clouds, vision of Heaven, this painting condenses many of the conflicting strands that make Richter's art so absorbing, so intelligent and so moving.
Gerhard Richter, Atlas, cloud studies
Johan Christian Dahl, A Cloud and Landscape Study by Moonlight, 1822 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco