German Painter, Graphic Artist, and Filmmaker
Minusio, Locarno, Switzerland
Summary of Hans Richter
A cosmopolitan figure, Hans Richter's very career embodies the history of modern art from World War I to the 1960s, Dadaism to Constructivism, Surrealism, and Fluxus. As editor of the seminal journal G, he created a vital link between Western European art and the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s. Even more importantly, he was a pioneering filmmaker, among the first to make purely abstract cinema, and a mentor to American directors of the 1950s and beyond. Personally, Richter experienced the 20th century's political nightmares first-hand, from combat in World War I in which he was severely wounded, to persecution by the Nazis and artistic censure in the Soviet Union. He never saw his art as separate from the conflicts and sufferings of humanity, but instead devoted his art to the creation of a better society.
- Profoundly influenced by music, Richter was able to capture the rhythmic nature of abstract forms in paintings, drawings, and films, and to synthesize the oppositions of dark and light, and organic and geometric shapes by using counterpoint like a musician. Richter also collaborated with major composers of his time and considered their scores essential to his films, pioneering the fusion of image and sound in cinema.
- Though Richter made both representational and abstract art, he created an abstract visual language that was universal, able to convey not only aesthetic experience but revolutionary political ideas as well.
- He transcended 19th century concepts of painting through film, setting static shapes into visual movement. This dynamism of film, made possible through new technology, for him embodied modernity itself.
- Richter used a synthesis of abstract forms, Dadaist collage, and the ancient medium of scrolls to create epics of contemporary history, despite the fact that many modernist artists considered history painting to be outmoded.
Biography of Hans Richter
Richter was born in Berlin into a prosperous Jewish family, one of six children. Richter began to draw in his early high school days, producing several portraits of his schoolmates as well as sketches from nature and urban life. Richter's mother, Ida Gabriele, was an accomplished harpist and pianist and instilled a lifelong love of music in her son. After graduation, Richter decided on a career in art, but his father, Moritz Richter, insisted that he train as an architect. In preparation for a career in architecture, Richter endured a two-year stint as a carpenter and joiner's apprentice in his father's business, the "Mississippi Grass Twine Company" of Berlin.
Important Art by Hans Richter
This self-portrait is one of eleven Visionary Portraits that Richter exhibited at the Dada exhibition 'Die Neue Kunst' ("New Art") in Zürich in 1918. Employing an Expressionist style, Richter painted the works in this series at twilight with no artificial lighting. His intention was to paint when colors were 'indistinguishable' to the eye on the canvas. He claimed that this would provoke an expression of spontaneity, still governed by chance. (Richter had been deeply influenced by the experiments in chance carried out by his close friend and fellow-Dadaist, the artist Hans Arp, one of whose most famous works is the 1917 Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance.) Richter recalled that to produce the Visionary Portraits he put himself into an: "auto-hypnotic trance... thus the picture took shape before the inner, rather than the outer, eye allowing color to freely flow and the hand to work almost unguided.") Richter's use of automatism and his search for a deeper reality beneath the everyday anticipate the concerns of the Surrealist artists of the 1920s, whom Richter later claimed had "swallowed and digested Dada." Like many major modernist artists in Germany, Richter's use of strong colors and expressive brushstrokes would change in the aftermath of the First World War and throughout the 1920s to a more linear, objective, geometric style.
Richter's series of Dada Heads are some of the most recognized works to emerge from the Zürich period of Dada. This series of drawings and woodcuts explored the limits of portraiture, often going beyond all recognizable representation of the subject to achieve pure abstraction. Many of the drawings have a free, gestural quality, quite liberated from traditional portraiture. The Dada Heads series as a whole records Richter's experiments with structure, composition, and counterpoint. "More and more of the object," Richter wrote, "got lost in the necessity to balance the black with the white (paper), to establish a simple polar relation."
Richter felt a struggle with structure, composition, and counterpoint. His intention was to experiment with oppositions - black and white, positive and negative. But in the process Richter found himself stuck and not knowing how to proceed. Seeking inspiration, he found it in a chance meeting with the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, who customarily held his intellectual salon at the public fountain outside Zürich train station. While a strong supporter of experimental music and often seen as a precursor of Futurism, Busoni was also deeply committed to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Richter told Busoni of his dilemma in trying to balance black ink with white paper. Busoni suggested that Bach's use of musical counterpoint might help Richter solve the problem. He advised Richter to study the preludes and fugues that Bach had composed for his wife Anna Magdalena. Richter, who loved music and could play piano, explored the pieces as recommended. It proved a revelation Richter found in the music, "the up and down... strong and weak, a movement and countermovement. I used the paper like a musical instrument." This drive for the abstraction and simplification of form, and the obsession with positive and negative are both motifs which will emerge in Richter's later film experiments.
This incredibly influential early abstract animation was the result of Richter and his partner Viking Eggeling's foray from the static canvas to a moving one. Lasting only 3 minutes, the film shows squares and rectangles moving across and within the flat plane of the screen in a mesmerizing rhythm. They move forward, backward, vertically, and horizontally. The theme is of contrast - of size, light, and angle, of positive to negative, from black to white, foreground to background, and of change - the forms grow, break apart, and finally fuse together into pure light. Everything is interaction, there is no narrative to speak of, though the ceaseless interplay of forms does have a dramatic quality, like a cosmic clash, with one shape seeming to dominate. The forms have a striking similarity to Russian Suprematist painting, such as The Black Square (1913) by Kazimir Malevitch. When Malevitch came to Berlin in 1927 (accompanied by a Cheka agent to prevent his defection), he proposed collaborating on a film with Richter that would explore Suprematist form and theory. Though Malevitch produced a script, the film was never made.
Theo Van Doesburg in the influential journal De Stijl saw this work as an attempt to surpass "the static nature of easel painting." Theo Van Doesburg showed Rythmus 21 during various lectures he gave in Paris in 1921-1922. Audiences at one venue were so outraged that they allegedly beat up the pianist accompanying the silent film.
Music was an important part of Richter's films. Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Paul Bowles, and Robert Abramson are among the many composers with whom Richter collaborated throughout his film-making career; indeed Richter saw his films in musical terms, noting: "I made my paper rectangles and squares grow and disappear, jump and slide in well-articulated time-spaces and planned rhythms." It was visual music as Richter put it: "the articulation of time instead of the articulation of form."