Gerhard Richter: The Secrets Of Clouds

Gerhard Richter: The Secrets Of Clouds

This summer, Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale is proud to present an exceptional Gerhard Richter work, drawing on his mastery of abstraction, painting and photography - the magnificent 'Study for Clouds (Contre-Jour)'.
This summer, Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale is proud to present an exceptional Gerhard Richter work, drawing on his mastery of abstraction, painting and photography - the magnificent 'Study for Clouds (Contre-Jour)'.

L uminescent and serene, Study For Clouds (Contre-Jour) is testament to Gerhard Richter’s commitment to approaching landscape art from a contemporary perspective. Part of the Wolken cycle of paintings, this piece evinces a sublime articulation of celestial bodies, unfurling around the sun. The clouds are caught in a moment of confrontation between the painterly and the photographic, the representative and the abstract, the natural and the supernatural.

"Richter’s abstractions are miraculously, often staggeringly, beautiful," commented The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl in 2020. "[They have] an air of having come into being through a will of their own, happening to - rather than issuing from - their creator".

Today, Study For Clouds (Contre-Jour) stands among the most beautiful of Richter’s oeuvre, a canon that stretches back decades, into the bleakness of post-war Soviet Germany. Growing up in the shadow of a generation's guilt, buckled into the ideological strictures of the DDR, Richter's body of work over the years has evolved with increasingly profound questions, broadening perspectives and ever-more inventive techniques. He finds here, a majestic absolution in the perfection and infinite emptiness of the sky. And these clouds are not only a celebration of nature as spiritual and sacred, but also a device that questions our most fundamental perceptions of reality.

Gerhard Richter Wolkenstudie (Gegenlicht) Study For Clouds (Contre-jour) Estimate: 6,000,000 - 8,000,000 GBP

Instead of simply representing the Divine, as might be expected in a heavenwards image, Richter asks us to consider the dynamics between painting and photography, nature and the sublime. As the artist noted the very same year Study for Clouds (Contre-jour) was executed, “I felt like painting something beautiful”

"I do see myself as the heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting – of art in general – which we have lost, but which places obligations on us. And it is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence."
- GERHARD RICHTER IN CONVERSATION WITH BENJAMIN BUCHLOH IN 1986

Executed between 1968 and 1979, the Wolken series is among Richter’s most celebrated, a significant precursor to his photo-realist Kerzen (Candles) and Schädel (Skulls) series of the 1980s. Altering the effects of light and weather conditions upon the cloud formations, Richter's skyscape carries echoes of artists across centuries of art history; from heavenly Renaissance frescoes and the sequential panels of church altarpieces, to John Constable’s cloud studies, J.M.W. Turner’s atmospheric skyscapes and the Romantic sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Nevertheless, in 1986, Richter referred to his landscapes as ‘cuckoo’s eggs’ for their misleading nature - whereas many artists have used clouds as a symbol of the Divine, Richter’s clouds do not suggest the existence of any heavenly being beyond.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the sea of fog
by Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the sea of fog. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This work evokes the sublime visual language spoken by such spiritual forebears as Michelangelo’s ethereal clouds on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in The Last Judgement (c. 1540), John Constable’s celebrated cloud studies and fellow German, Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic vistas in Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (circa 1817) and Monk by the Sea (1808-1810). Yet Richter’s photographic, near-scientific approach to very same subject matter systematically de-romanticises the great genre of landscape, and in contrast to the works of the German Romanticists, Richter’s landscapes are devoid of human figures.

The Wolken paintings are rooted in photography, with every iteration based upon images from his 'Atlas sheets' - Richter's collection of photographs, newspaper cuttings and sketches that he has been gathering since the mid-1960s. The title of this work is unique, in its direct reference to a photography technique, contre-jour, in which the camera is positioned directly toward a source of light. The contre-jour thus creates a backlighting of its subject - in this instance, the swirling clouds.

Gerhard Richter

The photographs were taken during different times – one in daylight with white clouds juxtaposed against a bright blue sky and the other at sunrise or sunset, the clouds moving around the sun, in washes of rosy pink. The clouds are smooth and slightly blurred on the surface of the canvas, as Richter’s meticulous brushwork seeks to imitate the objective realism of photography. In an interview with art critic Peter Sager in 1972, he discussed his desire to emulate the photographic image.

“Photography had to be more relevant to me than art history; it was an image of my - our - present day reality. And I did not take it as a substitute for reality but as a crutch to help me to get to reality. I needed the greater objectivity of the photograph in order to correct my own way of seeing. For instance, if I draw an object from nature, I start to stylise and to change it in accordance with my personal vision and my training. But if I paint from a photograph, I can forget all the criteria that I get from these sources. I can paint against my will, as it were. And that, to me, felt like an enrichment”.

GERHARD RICHTER IN HIS STUDIO, COLOGNE, 1989 IMAGE
©️ CHRIS FELVER / GETTY IMAGES ART
© GERHARD RICHTER 2022 (14042022)

Clouds, being clouds, are intangible, shapeless, formless, always in flux. They are a boon for artists wanting to symbolise a subject matter out of their control. These aspects of coincidence and subconscious also prevail throughout Richter’s celebrated Abstrakte Bilder, some of which he called ‘free abstracts’, a name that aptly conveys his embrace of irregularity and chance across his oeuvre.

'This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture'
- Gerhard Richter

“This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture. Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: It has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself”

Contemporary Art

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