Corps de l’article

In summer 2019, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao gathered and presented the largest set of Gerhard Richter’s seascapes ever assembled to date in a show.[1] In 2020 and 2021, two major exhibitions in Kunsthaus Zurich and Bank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna, were dedicated to the mere subject of landscape, presenting the artist’s various approaches over the course of his long career.[2] Indeed, as a subject, landscape has a dominant position in Richter’s work and evolves among the rest of his oeuvre, which expands from figurative to abstract painting and mirror or glass constructions. These recent monothematic shows have tried to embrace the artist’s reflection on the subject of landscape and have demonstrated its complexity and variety. They also reveal the museums’ interest in and the public’s attraction to the landscape genre and the painter’s innovative contribution to it.

Gerhard Richter was born and raised in East Germany (1932), trained at Dresden Academy and, after fleeing to West Germany in 1961, joined the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Even though he was young during the Second World War, it had a deep impact on him that was reflected later on his work. From very early on, Richter showed interest in the consumer society, the media, and popular culture, which appeared as subjects in his paintings. He would use magazine images which, after copying them on canvas, he would then modify (adding marks, cutting the canvas, or erasing motifs).[3] When he saw Roy Lichtenstein’s work for the first time,[4] the American’s flawless application of paint that “leaves no trace of the artistic signature”[5] did not only surprise the artist but also turned his practice of reproducing pictures into a legitimate artistic act.[6] Lichtenstein would somehow authorize Richter to continue and establish his method of copying photographs on canvas without any modification.

This use of photographic images allowed him to explore the relationship between photography and painting, and the landscape genre was one of the subjects he would adopt to do so in the late 1960s. He painted more than a hundred so-called photo-paintings of landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes (1968–1971). Working from photographs liberated him from worrying about inventing a composition: “When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated.”[7] The artist’s role is limited to the choice of the print: “I see countless landscapes, I photograph barely 1 in 100,000, and paint barely 1 in 100 of those that I photograph. I am therefore seeking something quite specific.”[8] The final photo-painting is the result of a meticulous research among countless images and prints.

Through photography, the artist shows not only his attachment to painting but also to a traditional genre at a time when the latter seems to rather disappear[9] all along with figuration and even painting itself as a medium. In fact, contemporary movements such as minimalism would declare that “painting had finished”[10] in order to look for new means to continue doing art. However, Richter insisted on painting all different pictorial genres. Additionally, he explored geometrical abstraction (e.g. in his Colour Charts)[11] while experimentations with gestural abstraction also became prominent (for example in his Grey Paintings).[12] Despite his growing commitment to abstraction,[13] Richter’s attraction to landscape painting was dominant in the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, only to become again the main subject of his photo-paintings in the late 1980s. Landscape painting also confronted abstraction, as he transformed his figurative photo-paintings into quasi-abstract or abstract canvases. Even during the 1990s and 2000s, when his production of landscapes was considerably limited, landscape would still appear in the title of his abstract paintings (such as River, 1995[14] and Abstraktes Bild, See [Abstract painting, lake], 1997[15]). It is also found in his overpainted photographs, which would grow during these decades. Today landscape mostly concerns his artist’s books that have been attracting more and more of the painter’s attention during the past years.

Throughout all these decades, Richter’s landscapes share a common characteristic: the openness and enrichment of different media. His landscapes are in constant dialogue with different arts, and especially with photography, which takes on several functions, from preparatory drawing[16] to motif for his art books and semi-autonomous object of his Atlas.[17] In this exchange with the medium of photography, an enormous variety of different relationships are created that broaden the landscape genre and turn it into a multidisciplinary work of art, integrating a great number of other works and thus obtaining an abundance of mobile relationships.

This paper seeks to address these relationships via the examination of a variety of artistic practices and mainly the media exchanges between painting and photography in Gerhard Richter’s landscapes. Therefore, the central focus of this article is to examine his landscapes in different supports through the engagement with the terms inter-, intra-, trans-, and multi-mediality. These prefixes explore different medial border crossing: inter- can describe the fusion of two media in a new artefact or the creation of a medium in relation to another one; intra- examines a relation that implies only one medium, trans- describes the transfer of one medium to another and multi- the copresence of two media in an object. This analysis will give us a better understanding of the artworks as the product of a medial exchange. It will also reveal interesting details about the works themselves (properties/characteristics/possibilities) as well as open up discussions on materiality (its presence or absence) and artistic problems that insist in the artist’s work (figuration/abstraction, imitation). To our knowledge, media theories have never been used to describe and examine Richter’s artistic practice, their impact on his creation, and thus their contribution to the landscape genre. To this end, the study of some representative examples will help us embrace these aspects of the painter’s practice that transcend artistic boundaries and render the works of art, as it will be argued, into intra-, inter-, trans-, and multi-medial landscapes.

Seestück (See-See)[18]: an intra-medial landscape with inter-medial references

a) Inter-medial references of Seestück (See-See): photography, its technique and Gustave Le Gray

Fig. 1

Gerhard Richter, Seestück (See-See) [Seascape (Sea-Sea)], oil on canvas, 200 cm x 200 cm, 1970

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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At first glance, Richter’s Seestück (See-See) (see Fig. 1) gives the impression of a black and white photograph capturing the rough sea and cloudy sky. Only a closer look makes one realize that it is an oil painting. In fact, the picture results from the transfer of a photograph[19] to canvas or, to be more specific, of a photographic collage of two different snapshots joined together with duct tape. The collage can be found in the artist’s Atlas (Seestücke (Foto-Collagen) 1970, pl. 194[20]—see Fig. 2).[21]

Fig. 2

Gerhard Richter, Seestück (Foto-Collagen) [Seascape Photo-collages)], photo collages, 66.7 cm x 51.7 cm, 1970, Atlas Sheet: 194

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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The two photographs meet on a white “horizon,” which divides the composition in two. In the lower part, the waves are presented in a light linear perspective, decreasing in size as they approach the horizon. Above the horizon, what appears to be the sky is formed by another series of waves which is in fact a very similar photograph to the lower part, turned upside down. Replacing the clouds with waves seduces the viewer to a trompe-l'oeil which requires time and careful observation, while there is a mirror effect of each surface appearing as a reflection of the other.

The painted final composition scrupulously respects its source-collage, which is copied on canvas.[22] The photographic source works for the artist as a ready-made that he wants to reproduce as faithfully as possible without modifications.[23] This means that photography resumes one of its historical functions as a subordinate medium at the service of painting.[24] In fact, Richter does not consider photography to be an autonomous art, but rather sees it as a vehicle that allows him to reflect upon art.[25] The artist would never regard himself as a photographer and would never present his photographs as an independent work without the mediation or connection to painting.

For Seestück (See-See), and the photo-paintings in general, as Richter declares: “I am not trying to imitate a photograph; I'm trying to make one.”[26] He attempts to do so with his own hands, putting in practice his pictorial means: he traces the composition’s contours in pencil and then paints it over with oil painting. In other words, as the artist puts it, he uses “paint as a means to photography.”[27] The resemblance to photography dominates even though there is no material presence of the photographic medium. This means that there is an intermedial reference to photography, in the sense Andreas Mahler uses the term to describe the relationship developed when a medium materially “present”—the painting in this case—establishes a reference to another medial system, photography, which remains materially “absent.”[28] To put it otherwise, the canvas is completed in relation to photography with painting’s own means[29] but without any mingling of the two media. This narrow definition of intermediality (as opposed to its larger and more vague definition)[30] seems appropriate as it is not interested in the simple interaction and dialogue between two media which is already implied by the prefix inter-.[31] It requires by definition a second medium to be materially absent.

Mahler’s sense of intermediality overlaps with what Irina O. Rajewsky identifies as “intermedial references.” The later describes a subcategory of intermediality[32]—which concerns a media product constituted in relation to another medium to which it refers. In the case of photo-paintings such as Seestück (See-See), it refers to the medium of photography through the evocation or imitation of photography’s techniques and elements while using painting’s own media-specificity. Therefore, like Mahler, Rajewsky is interested in the relation constructed between a present medium (the referencing medium) and an another one (the medium referred to) whose materiality never appears. In the given medial configuration, photography’s absence entails that painting manifests itself in its specific materiality and mediality and this affects “the specific quality of the reference itself.[33]

In Seestück (See-See), this reference to photography occurs due to the imitation of clearly discernible photographic qualities transferred to canvas. Those qualities can be understood as an ensemble of characteristics that only belong to the photographic idiom, meaning the elements which are specific and exclusive to photography’s language, thus allowing its direct identification.[34] For example, the oil painting imitates photography’s objectivity[35] and, consequently, gives the impression of a machine-made product. Photo-painting also has photography’s anonymous and impersonal character. Another characteristic is the painting’s blurring: the blur is a mark of defective photography that Richter achieves by retracing his finished canvas with his brush.[36] Another element specific to photography is the blow up,[37] the technical possibility of enlarging photographs in different sizes and, in this case, the enlargement of both joined small-scale photographs in a 200 cm x 200 cm canvas. The painting also borrows its gray shades from black and white photography.[38] To put it otherwise, Richter uses many of these photographic characteristics for which photography was deprived of its artistic value when it was first invented. Because of its mechanical, technological aspect, pressing a button could not be considered a creative act. Photography could not find a place among the fine arts as long as artists regarded it as a “factorum for art,”[39] limited to an inferior and subordinate role at the service of painting. Richter adopts these “flaws”—exclusive to photography— applies them to painting, and thus, removes from painting all the qualities for which it was thought superior, holding the highest rank.

Additionally, the reference to the photographic medium is also achieved through the use of the photographic technique of collage, which brings us back to a widespread mid-nineteenth-century practice and especially the one Gustave Le Gray frequently used. The French photographer would put together two different negatives of the sky and sea, combined on the horizon line in order to overcome technical problems resulting from different exposure times of each seascape element.[40] This process known as “ciels rapportés,” could not be perceived by the spectator, as the photographer would work on the negative.[41] Nevertheless, Le Gray makes a photograph that fails to reproduce an image of reality. It is a rather fictional image which combines different time and places (e.g. the sky from the Mediterranean and the sea from Normandy—see Fig. 3).[42]

Fig. 3. a

Gustave Le Gray, Grande Lame—Méditerrannée n° 19, positive photograph mounted on card: albumen paper: from collodion glass plate negative, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, 1857.

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Fig. 3.b

Gustave Le Gray, Etude de nuages. Clair-obscur, positive photograph mounted on card: albumen paper: from collodion glass plate negative, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, 1856–1857.

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Likewise, Seestück (See-See) cancels any kind of plausibility, despite the use of photographic sources. As the two photographs overlap, the sky seems independent from the sea. This discontinuity produces an effect of estrangement underlined by the illusory character of the landscape’s trompe-l’oeil.[43] The two different shots put together two different “abstracts”[44] of reality, but their combination creates a fictional, abstract, and intermedial seascape.

Although Le Gray proves that a photograph can be made “post-capture” and composed a posteriori, Richter is unable to do the same despite his intention to “make” a photograph and not to imitate one.[45] As already mentioned, Richter uses different ways to evoke or imitate the photographic idiom and techniques, but, as Rajewsky would argue, the artist can only use painting’s own medial possibilities that he puts in practice. Therefore, limited by his own painterly means, Richter could only make an artwork look as if it were a photograph. This “as if” character of the intermedial practice is an aspect that Rajewsky underlines for photorealistic painting,[46] an artistic movement that also brings into play photography in an indirect way.[47] The photorealist painting creates the illusion of photographic quality, giving the impression of a photograph. It thus exists in relation to the photographic medium, which does not manifest itself materially but through painting’s own instruments.[48] For both photorealist works and Richter’s photo-paintings, the absence of photography is imposed as a condition of this “as if” character. Sharing these similar specific medial configurations, neither Richter nor any photorealist can “make a photograph” due to the material constraints and restrictions of their own medium—a painting could appear like, but never become, a photograph. A better look at the artwork would always reveal its discernible identity as painting.

However, even though Richter’s photo-paintings overlap with photorealism during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and although he participated in various photorealistic exhibitions,[49] the artist would not affiliate himself with the movement. As opposed to photorealists, Richter does not aspire to achieve an artistic result but, as mentioned earlier, a blurred and flawed photography. Contrary to photorealist canvases that are even “more perfect than the camera,”[50] as the painter insists, Richter’s “as if” quality does not result from the reproduction of photography’s realistic aspect, whose rendering is photorealists’ most important objective. For Richter, it is the rendering of all the defaults, which actually destroy this illusion of depicting photographic reality, that make a canvas appear as a photographic image.

b) Seestück (See-See)’s intra-mediality: Gustave Courbet’s and Gerhard Richter’s waves

Richter’s Seestück (See-See) does not only indirectly[51] refer to another medium but also contains an intra-medial reference to the medium of painting. This means that the only existing and engaged medium, painting, refers to other paintings.[52] This dialogue is implied by the seascape’s wave-motif. Firstly, the depiction of a large scale, empty seascape evokes the long Romantic landscape tradition and especially Caspar David Friedrich who, as the rich literature on the subject has shown,[53] has deeply impacted Richter’s work. As a matter of fact, most of Richter’s landscapes until the early 1980s share common aspects with Romanticism.[54] The artist himself claims to have wanted to paint “something beautiful” that gives him pleasure like the German Master’s canvasses, proving at the same time that it is still possible to paint like Friedrich.[55] For the artist, the work of the great masters “does not belong to the past,”[56] it has “nothing to do with time,”[57] thanks to its “certain quality” which is timeless.[58]

Painting the sea as a theme also alludes to the French tradition of nineteenth-century artists (Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, James Whistler, Henri Rivière, etc.) who painted for the first time their firsthand experience of the sea. Placing themselves in front of the sea,[59] physical proximity allowed them to observe their “model” from a frontal, new point of view. This fresh perspective offered them a new composition and a new motif, the wave, whose representation of movement was a real challenge.[60] In particular, Courbet’s innovative paintings no longer offer a general overview of the coastal line, but they zoom-in on the sky and sea. This is the case of La Vague (1869) (see Fig. 4), today at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon. Instead of contemplating the sea from a distance—as was the case in his earlier “paysages de mer”—Courbet restricts his composition to two elements, the waves and the clouds, extracting the seascape from the coastal line. The painter puts his spectator in front of the stormy wave that rises in the middle of the composition and thus becomes his only motif, or as Cézanne put it “on la [la vague] reçoit en pleine poitrine. On recule. Toute la salle sent l’embrun.”[61] The scene imposes itself on the gaze and body of the spectator,[62] who “is barely able to locate his or her position and cannot know the point from which the painter composed the canvas.”[63]

Fig. 4

Gustave Courbet, La Vague, oil on canvas, 65.78 cm x 90.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, 1870

© Lyon MBA/Photo Alain Basset

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As in Courbet’s painting, Richter’s Seestück (See-See) is constructed on the same single motif of the wave, presented in a very similar composition that captivates and disorients the spectator. Due to the absence of perspective, there is no fixed, single angle to contemplate the waves: the point of view “is everywhere and nowhere.”[64] Courbet’s dense horizon line, the one Céline Flécheux calls a “false” horizon because of how it artificially structures the landscape,[65] reappears in Richter’s Seestück (See-See) as a white line constructed by the original collage’s two photographs. Holding the whole structure together, separating and bringing both parts of the composition together, the horizon functions as a point of reference for the spectator in front of the abstract landscape since it “organizes and reaffirms our relationship to the earth.”[66]

Those common characteristics with Courbet’s landscapes display Richter’s absorption of anterior tradition that offers an indirect manifestation of other seascapes. As there is no medial border crossing, painting’s referencing remains within the pictorial tradition. In fact, Seestück (See-See)’s references to the French painter point out all these elements (composition, subject, horizon) thanks to which Courbet’s series of seascapes established a new landscape tradition, leading to the rupture with the previous artistic heritage.[67] Even though referring to Courbet does not involve any kind of medial difference, the medial configurations become more complex if we take into consideration the intermedial references (in the sense used above) within the referred artwork, La Vague’s own medial system. The latter is tightly connected to photography, as has also been the case for realism in general.[68]

Thanks to the seascape’s and waves’ realistic depiction, La Vague evokes the photographic medium[69] and Le Gray’s seascapes in particular (which Courbet possibly knew).[70] In 1857, a decade before Courbet, the wave became Le Gray’s main motif in La Grande Vague (see Fig. 5).[71]

Fig. 5

Gustave Le Gray, La Grande Vague. Sète, no. 17, albumen silver print from glass negative, 33,8 cm x 41,5 cm, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 1857.

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In both works, the artists share the same subject and construct a similar composition which frames a frontal view of the seaside. Le Gray gives us a general overview of the stormy ocean at the moment when a foamy, crashing wave strikes, while Courbet wants to capture a “real” wave, the moment when it splashes and washes out in the sea, in the same way photography does. He “zooms” into his singular wave—a technical possibility that is today associated with a photographic quality. As already mentioned, the horizon line plays a decisive role for each artwork. Both compositions try to capture the instant, and in order to do so, they treat their subject in series.[72] Through Courbet’s own intermedial references, a dialogue with La Grande Vague emerges inevitably in Richter’s Seestück (See-See). For instance, in Le Gray’s picture, the white foamy clouds respond to the white foam of the waves. Similarly, Courbet’s cloudy, grey sky reflects itself in the wild waves of his first plan in the exact same way as Richter’s upper half is literally mirrored in the lower half. These inter- and intra-medial relationships trigger a reflection on the properties of all three artworks: any reference to a previous artwork (as here Courbet) means that the latter brings along its own medial system, allowing in this way other, indirect allusions to emerge.

While Seestück (See-See) is a painting within a painting, the canvas results from all those perceptible allusions to photography’s techniques and medium as well as the evocations of painting’s tradition. Therefore, Seestück (See-See) implies not only multiple references across more than one medium but also across different forms of art that the broader term trans-artistic could easily embrace. As the prefix trans- suggests the transgression of boundaries,[73] seeing this exchange as a dialogue across the arts enlarges our spectrum, which is thus able to consider the different artistic expressions and traditions and is not strictly limited to the discussion of medium, a discussion that might seem to merely focus on the more technical and material aspects of the artistic support.[74]

Overpainted photographs: inter-medial landscapes or the fusion of a new form of art

As mentioned earlier, the presence of photography in Richter’s work is not limited to its use in the photo-paintings. Richter mingles the photographic and the pictorial medium in his overpainted photographs which create a new discipline[75] in the traditional genre of landscape.[76] Overpainted photographs are a more recent practice the artist has been developing since 1989. They originally resulted from accidental drops of paint that fell on his photographs while copying them on canvas.[77] Richter initially hesitated about considering them an independent work of art. That is why he included them in the Atlas, where he used to “accommodate everything that was somewhere between art and garbage and that somehow seemed important to [him] and a pity to throw away.”[78]

Richter uses different techniques to “overpaint” his photographs. It is however impossible to trace and identify the exact applied technique.[79] What can be immediately perceived is the smeared paint and the photographic surface. This is why the term intermediality in the sense that Ginette Verstraete uses it[80] would ideally illustrate the media relationship of overpainted photographs, since it describes the fusion of two or more media which are transformed into a new form of art. Contrary to photo-paintings, where the photographic reality is absorbed by the painting, in the overpainted photographs both realities seem to exist independently as both media remain very distinct. The photographic medium receives the paint on its surface, but the photographic paper does not integrate the pigments neither materially nor physically. This means that the idiom of each medium, the smeared blur for painting and the verisimilitude for photography, is preserved.[81] Photography and painting thus manage to keep their respective characteristics and maintain “their differential specificity”[82] enriching the resulting work of art. Two pictorial traditions meet and coexist simultaneously, creating an interesting tension. On the one hand, photography is used as a ready-made, but not yet considered a work of art. It becomes one as soon as the color is added. On the other hand, paint tends to cover the photograph, which resists and remains predominant since the work is still a small-scale (10 cm x 15 cm) printed photograph on glossy paper.

Nevertheless, the photographic and the pictorial complement each other despite their distinct qualities and tension. In fact, paint sometimes seems to complete the photographic pre-existing composition,[83] adding motifs to it. For instance, in 21.3.92 (1992) (see Fig. 6) blue paint spreads in the lower half of the picture. A horizontal strip left without paint reveals the photograph: the sky and the crests of white mountains. The added colors create the new motif of a watery surface and produce a new composition that evokes a lake surrounded by mountains. As paint is combined with the rest of the photographic composition, it completes it, even corrects it by adding something that was missing in the first place.

Fig. 6

Gerhard Richter, 21.3.92, oil on colour photograph, 12.5 cm x 17.5 cm, 1992

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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In the same way, in 1.8.89 [Lake Como] (1989) (see Fig. 7) Richter adds with pigments another grey-white triangular form that rises as a mountain in front of another chain in the background. The resulting compositions of the overpainted photographs prove that once again Richter controls his medium, having carefully decided the colors and the forms.

Fig. 7

Gerhard Richter, 1.8.89 [Lake Como], oil on colour photograph, 102.2 cm x 15 cm, 1989

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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The Sils (1992) series is another example (see Fig. 8).[84] Here, the mountainous landscapes are sprinkled with small, round splashes of red paint that evoke snowflakes. As the new composition now depicts a snowfall, the artist’s intervention on the photographic picture entirely modifies the photographic moment.

Fig. 8

Gerhard Richter, 5.2.92, oil on colour photograph, 8.9 cm x 12.5 cm, 1992

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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Richter again uses paint in a corrective way and thus creates a new photograph of a fictional landscape. These examples show that the combination of the two media results in a co-relation and an interaction within the photographic surface that influence each other: the new composition reveals the mutual affect and the new form of art that emerges.[85] Their definition as “overpainted photographs” fails to describe this new form as the product of this intermedial configuration.[86] The new, enriched art object is only conventionally described as a photograph since the latter can only refer to the material support and not the actual resulting fusion of both photography and painting.

Looking at some more examples of overpainted photographs, one could remark that some are more covered with paint. In this case, another tension is suggested. Thanks to both media’s idioms existing on the same surface (smeared formless motifs of paint and verisimilitude), photography can still be linked to figuration and painting to abstraction[87] triggering a conflict between the two. In 27.9.94 (1994) (see Fig. 9), for instance, since two thirds of the image are covered with paint, the photograph becomes an almost monochrome surface or, to put it otherwise, turns into an abstract surface.

Fig. 9

Gerhard Richter, 27.9.94, oil on colour photograph, 12.5 cm x 17.5 cm, private collection, 1994

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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At the same time, adding a layer of paint creates another (third) dimension which changes the texture. This change in the texture of the photographic surface as another effect of intermediality influencing the artwork’s perception. The spectator is led to a “refreshed perception” that takes into consideration that photography’s previously existing “specific conventions are changed.”[88] This allows “new dimensions of experience to be explored”[89] that encourage new ways of looking and understanding the new surface, its new materiality, and the consequences that it entails. The photographic image’s illusion is irreversibly broken by a tangible material. Everything of this image that has to do with photography is erased and destroyed, or best case scenario, it appears randomly, only to interfere with the pictorial reality. The thin traces left by the paint’s application create a blurry effect that no longer seems an external element but part of the new whole. A subtle play takes place between the colors (pre-existing and added) and the photographic motifs, between abstraction and figuration.

This confrontation of the photographic and the pictorial illustrates Richter’s reflection on the difference between the two media. For the painter, photography presents the immateriality of an illusory image—it is not tangible; it is only a picture.[90] Richter counteracts this aspect of photography by adding the materiality of the paint. Found at the heart of this intermedial fusion, landscape, as the subject of the pre-existing image, is attached to the photographic and the figurative. On the other hand, abstraction is associated with the pictorial dimension and materiality of the work of art. The abstract forms of the paint make the landscape of the final image abstract. This “abstract landscape” has to find its fragile balance: less paint deprives it of its abstract character, too much paint stifles it completely. Each abstract landscape is unique, like a painting, but on photographic paper enriched by both media’s qualities.

Photography after painting in 128 Fotos von einem Bild [128 Photographs of a Painting][91]: a trans-medial landscape

In summer 1978, Richter was invited to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax to teach for a semester. He painted Halifax, a small-format abstract painting of intense colors (yellow, blue, white, green) on a red background. Since the painter did not have a large studio where he could paint, he had the idea to photograph Halifax. As the artist explains, he captured the canvas from 128 different points of view, “from different sides and angles, under various light conditions, and from various distances.”[92] He even took the canvas out of its stretcher to spread it out on a table and a chair where it formed folds.[93] Then Richter gathered the resulting 128 black and white photographs “in four-by-four grids on eight white cardboard panels, and arranged the panels in two rows of four,”[94] as an ensemble forming a picture (see Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

Gerhard Richter, 128 Fotos von einem Bild [128 Photographs of a Painting], photographs on card, 127 cm x 400 cm, 1978

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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Transferring painting to photography and creating in this way a new photographic work of art of a painting’s reproduction is a practice of trans-mediality.[95] The term describes the “transfer from a medium to another,”[96] a sort of adaptation[97] of painting into photography, into the language and means of the photographic medium. This understanding of the term also implies transmediality as the “translation of one medium into another.”[98] Both translation[99] and adaptation as similar cases of transmediality focus on the transfer that implies a media change, a transposition after which the painting loses all the qualities of its medium. However, as it is adapted to another one, it gains new photographic characteristics.

Photography after painting is a practice Richter tried for the first time in 1966 when he photographed his photo-painting Kleine Pyramide [Small Pyramid] of 1964.[100] It was a way for the painter to restore damaged paintings or to regain possession of works he no longer had.[101] Even though this practice is adopted for very few of his paintings, it concerns works like Betty,[102] Ema (1988),[103] Petite Baigneuse (1994),[104] Loo Paper (1965),[105] Oncle Rudi (1965)[106] which are key canvases in the artist’s career. The resulting photograph is an original work, signed, authorized, and controlled by the artist. Considering the first use of photography as a means of reproducing and communicating a work of art,[107] Richter gives his art greater accessibility by finding a way to democratize it.

However, Richter does not aim to make an exact reproduction of a painting. In this sense, his translation is not faithful but a recreation, a creative rewriting[108]—the same way an adaptation could also function. The final photograph is the result of several adjustments and changes which take a lot of time and effort.[109] As a matter of fact, Richter applies photographic techniques. For example, he changes the light and colors, zooms in the original composition, or takes out-of-focus pictures of a painting that is already blurred: “I take even more focus out of the painted image, which is already a bit out of focus, and make the picture even smoother.”[110] In other words, “once converted into the other medium [photography] very little reminds us of the medium specificity of the original [the painting].”[111] Painting’s idiom nearly disappears as the artist adapts to the means the camera has to offer.[112] As he is the same “author” of all the artworks, Richter appears as a self-translator. As any bilingual author in between different languages, he finds himself playing with different media, using his authority and poetic license to rewrite his original, while keeping the same “message” in photography’s own language and qualities.[113] Therefore, the return to the photographic medium[114] gives birth to an image which is different not only from the original photo-painting but also from the initial photographic source.

As in any other photograph after painting, 128 Fotos von einem Bild differs significantly from the initial abstract painting. The 128 black and white photographs change the color tones of the abstract painting, transferring it into a strictly photographic category. This is the first of the photographic idioms which gives a new identity to the image.[115] The original composition is reduced in 128 close-ups. The different points of view and the proximity to the subject create interesting light variations between very bright areas and very dark areas left in the shadow. The 128 photographs are presented framed behind glass protection, which adds distance. All these manipulations and transformations resulting from the passage to the new medium become the new characteristics of an independent object that go beyond its different physical characteristics (photo paper, size, frame). The new object neither reproduces the painting’s effect nor tries to restore the canvas. The photographs do not preserve the painting’s physical reality; in fact, the artist sees his practice as a procedure of subtracting painting’s materiality, and thus “it becomes something different.”[116]

A contradiction might seem to appear as far as the medium’s role is concerned in the photographs after painting: on the one hand, through his reproducing of paintings, Richter renders his art more accessible by defying painting’s uniqueness and offering multiple copies of its photographic reproduction that can be (re)printed. More people can own an original Richter artwork (the print), which at the same time communicates further an original canvas. On the other hand, this reproduction is indeed “something different” from the original artwork since, as already seen, the resulting artwork is not a faithful copy; its colors, format, and scale vary substantially. More importantly, it is another medium which fully uses its own (medial) properties and possibilities. The reconciliation of this contradiction is achieved thanks to the nature itself of this transfer, earlier described as a translation. As translation results in “two equivalent messages,”[117] in our case, it concerns two equivalent images in different languages, each proper to its medium. Indeed, despite all the modifications, the reproduced, photographic image most often allows recognition of the original painting. As the photographic image is still an equivalent to the original, sharing the same title and common subject on their surface, it accomplishes both conflicting functions.

Nonetheless, 128 Fotos von einem Bild is a different case of photography after painting, probably unique in Richter’s oeuvre. Due to the modifications, even though the connection to painting remains, the spectator cannot easily discern the original abstract painting. The new work reveals “all these interesting qualities that painting does not have.”[118] The photographs seem like snapshots of an unrecognizable place that resembles a landscape.[119] Like Richter’s abstract paintings, each picture shows “scenarios, surroundings or landscapes that do not exist, but they create the impression that they could exist.”[120] In fact, the collage seen from a distance looks like a desert or a mountainous landscape with no signs of life. As Richter admits, “the details themselves weren't so interesting, it was the fact that I could see them as a landscape, like gazing at an alien planet that you were arriving at or flying over.”[121] Indeed, the collage evokes the first photographs of the moon, alluding to the photo archives of a space expedition. The painter transforms his photography into an extraterrestrial landscape seen from far away. As always, Richter superimposes painting and photography, and both realities are found in the transmedial landscape, broken down into 128 pieces and then made unrecognizable.

The multi-medial landscape of 128 Details from a Picture, Halifax 1978: Co-presence and coexistence

The 128 photographs of Halifax also gave birth to 128 Details from a Picture, Halifax 1978 (see Fig. 11), Richter’s first work which can be considered an artist’s book.[122] It is a small 65–page book of photographs containing Richter’s short commentary on the creation of the project.

Fig. 11

Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter: 128 Details from a Picture (Halifax 1978), I, artist’s book (paperback), 27 cm x 19 cm, 1980

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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As in his other art books realized later on, Richter combines two media, that of the book and that of photography. There is no fusion between them, but a co-presence in the resulting same object. In other words, there is multi-mediality, as Ginette Verstraete[123] put it to refer to this type of coexistence of two different media in the same object. It should be mentioned that Richter’s attachment to books shows his close relationship to literature.[124] At the same time, he confronts the long tradition of livre d’artiste and evolves its concept in the second half of the twentieth century. His books do not include collaborations with poets and do not mix poetry and painting, although he usually combines text and image.[125] There are never limited editions or rare and valuable books as he chooses traditional book forms, classic techniques, and cheap paper.[126] Like the photographs after painting, art books can be thus seen as a medium to communicate his art to a wider audience.

128 Details from a Picture, Halifax 1978 (1980) contains images arranged in groups of four across double page spreads, two to each page. If at first glance there is no particular order, a closer observation reveals that the first photographs show frontal captions followed by side views of the painting Halifax. The end of the book contains more abstract, blurry photographs. The book as a medium gives the possibility to “read” carefully the pictures/photographs, to pay attention to their details in a way that 128 Fotos von einem Bild presented on the wall could never allow. The reader/spectator can now take his/her time to process materially the book in his/her hands while taking advantage of the aesthetic experience of looking—this experience might not only last longer but also be repeated at any time. Despite the close study, the photographs still do not reveal the origin of the source they document. Due to the particularity of 128 Fotos von einem Bild as a case of photography after painting in which, as mentioned earlier, the original abstract painting cannot be easily identified,[127] the observation of the prints shows that they indicate a reference to painting in general. In fact, the photographs focus on the materiality and the physical characteristics of what seems to be an unidentified surface that looks like a rough wall rather than a canvas. Still, painting’s conventional qualities and characteristics specific to its medium can be identified: the close-ups capture pigments of paint emerging from the flat surface of the canvas as well as the traces left from the painter’s brush.

The combination of photography with the format of the book is used as an instrument to read and view a painting.[128] The book transforms the photographs into pictures printed on sheets of paper, undermining their photographic status and character. Those images are adapted to the scale, the paper as material, and the pagination of the book as a medium. The latter continues what photography initiated: the complete subtraction of the pictorial and material identity of the abstract painting. However, the medium of the book maintains photography’s specificity[129] as the small format of the 128 prints is preserved and the photographic image remains unchanged, reproduced on each page. In the 1998 second edition of the book, as we will see later, photography’s materiality is also evoked. Therefore, in the artist’s book, what describes the relation between the media (the book and the prints available through the book) is the emphasis on their mutual co-presence in one object/artefact. The artist’s attention to the book itself (the interest in its type of paper, format, and the photographs’ layout and order) render 128 Details from a Picture, Halifax 1978 a piece of art for its own sake, printed in multiple copies. Besides, as photography keeps its specificity, the reproduced 128 photographs are also a Richter artwork brought to a wider public through the book’s pages. This means that book’s role as medium is significant in creating “something different,” a new piece of art while at the same time, it functions as a means to render his previous art more accessible.[130]

In 1997, during an exhibition of his Halifax drawings,[131] Richter was asked to review the photographs from 128 Details from a picture. He responded with a new book: Gerhard Richter. 128 Fotos von einem Bild (Halifax 1978), 1998 (see Fig. 12).

Fig. 12

Gerhard Richter, 128 Fotos von einem Bild, (Halifax 1978), III [128 Details from a Picture (Halifax 1978), III], artist’s book (paperback), 16 cm x 23.5 cm, 1998

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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The new book shows a different approach to the 128 black and white photographs. Here, he presents them in a different layout and horizontal format (1 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches). Each photograph occupies an entire page, thus revealing the uniqueness of each one, giving the possibility to the reader to focus on a single image and appreciate it as such.[132] As far as the book’s paper quality is concerned, this edition uses glossy paper. Its shiny surface gives back to photography one of its physical qualities and therefore preserves even more effectively the photographic medium’s specifity and materiality. For a special edition of this artist’s book, Richter accompanied 128 copies of his book with one of those 128 photographs from 1978 (see Fig. 13). In fact, he partially covered each black and white photograph with grey paint, creating 128 different overpainted photographs. Grey paint occupies the lower part of the picture shaping a horizontal strip which divides the surface in two: a photographic half and a painted one. The width of the paint strip varies, from very thin to covering half of the photograph.

Fig. 13

Gerhard Richter, 128 Fotos von einem Bild, (Halifax 1978), IV [128 Details from a Picture (Halifax 1978), IV], artist’s book special edition and oil on black and white photograph, 14.9 cm x 22.4 cm, 1998

© Gerhard Richter 2022 (24022022)

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Overpainted photographs’ intermediality, studied earlier, meets the artist’s book’s multimediality, while all media refer to painting, Halifax. Overpainted photography provides the work of art the physical and immediate presence of paint that the canvas originally had. At the same time, it brings to life a new landscape composition. Split in two, the horizontal straight grey line evokes the horizon, as the structure brings to mind Richter’s bisected seascapes. In this sense, those overpainted photographs allude to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s famous black and white pictures structured in two zones of sky and sea.[133] In this successive superposition and interaction of photography, painting, and landscape, grey paint destroys the (abstract) photograph of Halifax which lays underneath, whereas the resulting composition is a revitalized landscape: a photographic, (doubly) pictorial, and abstract seascape.

All the above studied medial exchanges and relationships of multi-medial, trans-medial, inter-medial, intra-medial landscapes that result from the combination of disciplines and references to landscape painting, photography, and art books, their techniques and media, prove how in Richter’s hands a traditional genre can be enriched from the different allusions, relationships, and artworks from which it derives. Adopting the French theorist’s Gerard Genette’s terminology, Richter’s landscape is a palimpsest “où l’on voit, sur le même parchemin (c’est-à-dire à la même surface de la page et du texte écrit) un texte se superposer à un autre qu’il ne dissimule pas tout à fait, mais qu’il laisse voir par transparence.”[134] The surface is obviously not the surface of a page or a text, but of the artwork, and this is where multiple, superposed layers containing the anterior pictorial tradition and other arts can be found. Thanks to their transparency, all those components become not only visible and accessible to the viewer but also enrich landscape painting on the threshold of the twenty-first century.