Painted in 1970, Wolkenstudie is one of Gerhard Richter's earliest and most intimate cloud paintings and is among his most direct evocations of the Northern Romantic tradition, and especially of the art of Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich and other German Romantics sought to infuse landscape with a degree of sublimity traditionally reserved for religious subjects. They thus abandoned the structured format of the classic landscape and instead depicted vistas, the immense scale and relative emptiness of which suggested infinitude and purity. Especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Richter paid devoted homage to this ideal, adopting the characteristic subjects of German Romantic landscapes - icebergs, skyscapes, the Alps - as a program for his own work as a painter, what he himself so soberly calls the "daily practice of painting." Based on photographs, Richter's cloud paintings are sublime and heavenly in a literal way, providing the viewer with a kind of exalted absorption in supernal grandeur that was the chief goal of German Romantic landscape painting.
Richter, however, is working at the end of a tradition, not at its start, and he brings to his Romantic pictures a heightened awareness of history, aesthetics and psychology. In the present work, his meditative self-consciousness about the act of making art is omnipresent. Based on photographs and not on nature as such, Wolkenstudie is actually quite artificial. Nevertheless, confronted with something as visually stunning as this, the viewer becomes wholly absorbed, lost in contemplation of the sublime, just as Romantic painters hoped. But such intense absorption is momentary, self-consciousness returns almost instantaneously: the viewer's attention oscillates between the work itself and his own reactions to it. This was a psychological truth that Friedrich and his peers did not acknowledge. The fact that it is based on a photograph makes the viewer aware that he is seeing the natural spectacle through a medium, and that no matter how mimetic and realistic the representation is, it is still a simulacrum. Richter's work is ironic, and intensely so; but his is a noble and nostalgic irony, in no way aligned with the scornful nihilism and shallow opportunism of the Deconstructionists.
In many ways, Richter's cloud paintings can be seen as early attempts at abstraction, and indeed his very first true abstract pictures were made shortly before and afterwards within the same year. His gray monochrome abstractions from 1970 act as a kind of buffer zone between his conceptually-based black-and-white seascapes and magnificent cloud paintings, which were immediately followed by a series of large-scale abstractions that photo-realistically depict multi-colored swirls of paint enlarged to monumental scale. The compositions of these clearly recall those of the cloud paintings, just as the gray monochrome pictures are reminiscent of overcast skies. It was during this period that Richter struggled with himself between abstraction and figuration, an inner conflict that continues to inform his work today, over thirty years later.