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Critical Review

Gerhard Richter is one of the most important German and European artists of all time. Well-known as the creator of a stylistically heterogenous oeuvre, the artist has left few subjects untouched. Throughout his lengthy career, Richter has consistently made headlines for treating subjects often deemed ‘off limits’ in German collective consciousness. From historical paintings of newspaper photographs portraying British monarch Queen Elizabeth II, through to his photorealist depictions of family holidays, still-life objects and candles, Richter’s work traverses the spectrum of the contemporary era. In this collection entitled Swiss Alps, Richter blends abstraction and realism.

The Schweizer Alpen prints engage with both deliberate and experimental line-making. In Schweizer Alpen II – A1 (1969), areas of dark ink signal Richter’s attachment to the bold, raw, and dizzying landscape he is trying to depict. However, their meeting with different tones of white ink also conjures a sense of Richter’s defiantly abstract sensibility. Playing upon the ambiguity of the image, Schweizer Alpen I – B1 (1969) and Schweizer Alpen II – B2 (1969) are even more indeterminate; the aerial photograph after which these works were created is both present and concealed, with Richter’s loose mark-making echoing his long-held wish to enact the ‘death of painting itself’.

When these works were first created in the late 1960s, Richter had been permanently settled in West Germany for almost a decade. Having escaped East Germany just months prior to the erection of the Berlin Wall, Richter was never to see his parents again. In the democratic West, the young artist was surrounded by the type of avant-garde approaches he had first experienced at the cutting-edge Documenta II exhibition. Held in the West Germany city of Kassel in 1959, this exhibition featured works Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, and Pablo Picasso.

Why is the Swiss Alps collection so important?

The Swiss Alps collection foregrounds an especially significant moment in Gerhard Richter’s artistic development and professional career. Following on from his now iconic Stadtbilder series, begun in the previous year, the Swiss Alps works bring the representational regimes afforded by painting, printmaking, and photography into productive conversation. Taking their lead from a number of images featured in Richter’s so-called Atlas, these works provide an in-depth view of Richter’s longstanding meditation on the relationship between photographic technologies and their human counterparts.

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