'I wasnt interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it'
(A. Gursky quoted in L. Cooke, Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per) Versions, M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the present, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Dsseldorf, Dusseldorf 1998, p. 13).
'[Gursky's] hymn to the Rhine and his lovely send up of commercial allure echo each other. God and Mammon are discovered to have used the same geometric template. Both creators simultaneously inciting us to wonderment' (P. Galassi, 'Gursky's World,' Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 35).
Breathtaking with its brilliant, expansive field of verdant green, Rhein (1996) is the noble figurehead of the Andreas Gursky's oeuvre. An astounding, contemporary take on the 'sublime', this photograph envelops the viewer in its beautiful scene. Reflecting on Barnett Newman's own search for the abstract 'sublime' in the 1950s, here Gursky adopts this metaphor and applies it to perhaps the most symbolic motif in German art, the Rhine. He invites the viewer to marvel at the perfected line and horizontal striations of colour, which comprise his landscape. In doing so, he creates a dramatic reflection on man's highly mediated relationship to nature. The present work is the very first iteration of this enduring image and number one from an edition of six photographs; another example is currently housed in the Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul. Featured on the front cover of Gursky's catalogue for his major touring retrospective at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1998, the work became instantly iconic, encouraging the artist to return to his vista in 1999 for a further edition entitled Rhein II.
For Gursky, as for many of his art historical predecessors, the Rhine is of almost totemic significance. One of the longest rivers in Europe, it carves an exceptionally straight course, passing through six different countries including the artist's home town of Dusseldorf before reaching its confluence with the North Sea. Spanning the full width of the epic picture plane, the Rhine's captivating, riverine 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. Almost bisecting the composition, it presents 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 draws an ineffable link to the actual natural landscape, inviting the viewer to cross over into its vivid picture plane.
With its majestic panorama, Rhein invites viewers to immerse themselves in the image, which rapidly dissolves from figurative landscape to abstract composition. As Gursky has averred, 'my pictures are becoming increasingly formal and abstract a visual structure appears to dominate the real events shown in my pictures. I subjugate the real situation to my artistic concept of the picture' (A. Gursky quoted in L. Cooke, 'Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per)Versions', M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the present, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Düseldorf, Düsseldorf 1998, p. 14). Palpable similarities exist between the composition of Rhein and Newman's late vibrant paintings admired for their expansive, all enveloping, chromatic fields. It is the 'experience' of unassailable, bold colour and its radical resurrection of the 'sublime' that is of importance to Newman, and which fundamentally echoes with Gursky's brilliant composition in Rhein.
Throughout European history the Rhine, often referred to as Vater Rhein (Father Rhine), has been an important cultural motif and mainstay for a multitude of people. Invoked in ancient folklore, art and music, it has also been integral to the waging of war, the staging of industry and the operation of people's daily livelihoods. Recurring as a theme throughout Richard Wagner's great four-part operatic opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), it has also been endlessly featured in German Romanticism by artists such as Casper David Friedrich, as well as German post-war painters including Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. As Kiefer once explained his own native fascination, 'I grew up on the banks of the Rhine. France was on the other side. As a child I saw the river as an insuperable obstacle, something you could not swim across. It thus acquired a mythical status for me. When you came to this barrier you could turn left or right but not go straight ahead, except in your imagination' (A. Kiefer interview with B. Comment, 'Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles', Art Press 216, September, 1996). These antecedent associations, if not intentionally invoked through Gursky's pure, elegant aesthetic, are all bound up in his iconic depiction of the Rhine.
Gursky was originally schooled by the celebrated duo Bernd and Hilla Becher at the renowned Künstacademie in Düsseldorf. With his direct and unflinching perspective centered upon one theme, here the familiar straight stretch of the river Rhine, his style recalls the Bechers' own distinctive practice. However his work does makes a radical departure with its brilliant use of colour and large-format imagery. Indeed, faced with what he considered to be the fundamental inadequacies of the documentary practice, Gursky was persuaded in 1992 to begin using digital technology as a means of manipulation. In doing so, the artist skillfully generated an 'illusion of a fictitious reality', throwing into question the veracity of the image as it fluctuates between a pristine landscape and an artificial reframing of the world (R. Pfab, 'Perception and Communication: Thoughts on New Motifs by Andreas Gursky', M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the Present, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf 1998, p. 9).
Like the painter, Gursky constructs his composition, removing all small arbitrary details interrupting his clean horizon. As he once elaborated, 'there is a particular place with a view over the Rhine which has somehow always fascinated me, but it didn't suffice for a picture as it basically constituted only part of a picture. I carried this idea for a picture around with me for a year and a half and thought about whether I ought perhaps to change my viewpoint ... In the end I decided to digitalise the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me' (A. Gursky quoted in A. Ltgens, 'Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet', Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg 1998, p. xvi). As a result the viewer is not invited to consider a specific place along the river but rather an almost 'Platonic' ideal of the body of water as it navigates the landscape.
Perfected, straightened and heightened, Rhein is also a reflection of the effect contemporary man has had on his environment. As Gursky has explained, 'I wasn't interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it' (A. Gursky quoted in L. Cooke, 'Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per)Versions', M. L. Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the present, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Düseldorf, Düsseldorf 1998, p. 13). Certainly the artist has drawn parallels between the engineered landscape of the Rhine and the urban space, illuminating the formal, geometric arrangement of heavily laden supermarket shelves and residential units as seen in Paris Montparnasse (1993) and 99 Cent (1999). As Peter Galassi has so eloquently described, '[Gursky's] hymn to the Rhine and his lovely send up of commercial allure echo each other. God and Mammon are discovered to have used the same geometric template. Both creators simultaneously inciting us to wonderment' (P. Galassi, 'Gursky's World,' Andreas Gursky, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 2001, p. 35).