Loosening the Avant-Garde
Born in Berlin in 1888, Hans Richter was a painter, filmmaker, organizer, curator and writer, but above all he was a radical changeling
Born in Berlin in 1888, Hans Richter was a painter, filmmaker, organizer, curator and writer, but above all he was a radical changeling
Hans Richter was born in Berlin in 1888 and died in Switzerland in 1976. Though he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery The Art of This Century in 1946, received a special prize for his 1947 film Dreams That Money Can Buy at the Venice Film Festival that same year and was friends with Hans Arp, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Ferdinand Léger, Man Ray and Kurt Schwitters, Richter has remained a little-known figure. He was a painter, filmmaker, organizer, curator and writer, but above all he was a radical changeling. He could work abstractly and figuratively, he headed for reality but was outrun by his own wild imagination. He brought an utterly rational structure to the world of abstract forms before turning his hand to more obscure disciplines. Richter believed that an avant-garde artist had to work on behalf of the Socialist collective, but he always remained individual. He had an inherent lightness of touch and irreverence that must have seemed suspect to many of the guardians of the postwar avant-garde tradition. In short, it is perhaps unsurprising that his work has met with so little understanding.
Only now is that beginning to change, as attested by the most comprehensive Hans Richter exhibition to date, which has been shown at LACMA in Los Angeles and the Centre Pompidou Metz and is now at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, with the title Hans Richter: Begegnungen – Von Dada bis heute (Hans Richter: Encounters from Dada to today). The exhibition presents an artist who started remarkably early on the project of ‘loosening’ many of the dogmas of the avant-garde, as he put it: a word he chose in deliberate reference to the book Last Loosening (1920) by his Dadaist friend Walter Serner, whom he greatly admired.
Richter began to study architecture at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 1906, but switched to visual art in 1908. At the Café des Westens in 1912 he got to know Emmy Hennings, who introduced him to the Dada scene. The next year, through Herwarth Walden, the editor of the avant-garde publication Der Sturm, he met Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose Futurist Manifesto (1909) he tried to hand out to the carriage drivers at Potsdamer Platz – Richter’s (not especially enjoyable) first experience of public performance.
In 1916 Richter ended up in Zurich, where the Cabaret Voltaire founded by Hennings and Hugo Ball had become the gathering place for the aspiring, and already, avant-garde. Vladimir Lenin lived across the street from the venue. To this day there remains speculation as to whether the later leader of the Russian Revolution visited incognito. In any event, the Cabaret was a wild place: performers sang, screamed, painted each other and – as necessary – the audience too. ‘Dada’, Richter later recalled, ‘did not merely have no programme, it was downright opposed to programmes. Dada had the programme of not having any programme … and at that time, at that historical moment, this gave the movement an explosive power to develop freely in ALL directions without any aesthetic or social commitments. This absolute unconditionality was truly unprecedented in the history of art.’1
Richter was never again to give up this unconditional freedom. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he became politically active. He took part in the activities of the Berlin Dadaists who unlike their Zurich counterparts, as he put it, ‘had revolution on their agenda.’ But he soon tired of ‘preposterous and scandalous’ Dada performances, instead increasingly turning his energies to the active fight for Socialism. He went to Munich, where he took part in the 1919 founding of the revolutionary Munich Soviet Republic and sought to appoint his old friends from the Dada movement to professorships at the Academy of Fine Arts. But the Soviet Republic failed, Richter was arrested, and it was only thanks to the influence of his mother, a Rothschild by birth, that he evaded imprisonment.
Even amidst all these activities, Richter never forgot about art. From 1916 onward, he painted expressive pictures while in ecstatic states, calling them ‘visionary portraits’. An early example, his 1917 portrait of Hennings, already veers towards abstraction. In 1918 Tristan Tzara introduced him to the Swedish painter Viking Eggeling, who shared his enthusiasm for music, rhythm and movement, which both Richter and Eggeling began to convert into visual forms. They produced abstract images painted on long scrolls of paper, suggesting chordal progression. These scrolls, painted in 1920, are entitled Rhythm, Fugue and Preludium. But Richter soon became dissatisfied with the project. He wanted to capture movement in its sequence. But how to do so? The Cubist experiment of depicting movement through static individual glimpses was not enough for him. Here, a new medium presented itself to him: film.
Rhythm 21, created in 1921, is one of the first abstract films made, if not the very first. A black surface appears and is divided into two rectangles. A white square against a black background vanishes into the distance, and additional squares and rectangles overlap and grow or shrink. After some three minutes the final image appears: a black square against a white background. Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, first exhibited in St Petersburg in 1915, was familiar to Richter at the time only through hearsay, and yet his film added another dimension to Malevich’s work: movement. In the later abstract films Rhythm 23 (1923) and Rhythm 25 (1925) the square remains the point of departure for a dense proliferation of overlapping shapes and rhythms. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Malevich sought out Richter when he visited Berlin in 1927, and suggested they work on a film together. As his writings show, Malevich was sharply critical of the celebrated Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whom he accused of outmoded theatricality in the style of the 19th century Russian Peredvizhniki painters. He was seeking a possibility for contemporary film to implement recent achievements in art. He believed himself to have found the right filmmaker in Richter, and the two set to work enthusiastically. Malevich created an exact plan for the film, comprising explanations and drawings, but it was never realized.
It is possible that nothing came of it because it was at precisely this time that Richter began to turn away from abstraction. This is suggested in the work Filmstudie (Film Study), which was shot between 1926 and 1928. Amidst all the squares and rectangles, a woman’s face suddenly appears, and floating black and white circles transform into rolling glass eyes. Thus seen, the simple ‘out’ in the final shot does not just proclaim the end of the film. It seems as if Richter were also announcing the end of his experiments in abstraction, to devote him-self instead to the concrete realities of the material world. The film Inflation (1927–28), a highly topical reaction to the inflation problem of the time, shows skyscrapers, hands counting money, numbers, cars and worried faces. The individual clips grow ever shorter, their rhythmic sequence ever faster, the stacks of money ever higher. Inflation departs from his earlier films in that pure form is no longer the subject of the film; instead the form, cut and rhythm serve the needs of the narration.
One of Richter’s best-known films, set to music by Paul Hindemith, was the crime-meets-ghost story Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast, 1928), which functions in a thoroughly narrative way. Black hats fly through the air and cups spontaneously start to move. Men fight, sneak through stairwells brandishing weapons or disappear behind streetlamps. The then-advanced special and technical effects to serve the telling of a ghost story – an obscurantist relic of the past – seems initially contradictory. This simultaneous asynchronicity also bears an element of parody: the exaggeration in _Vormittagsspu_k is not least a deft reckoning with the sorts of Hollywood production of the time that cloaked stale content in the latest technology.
Around the same time, Richter began to make promotional films. These works make dexterous use of the innovative possibilities of the camera’s gaze while at the same time deliberately playing with the fetish character of goods. One such film is Der Zweigroschenzauber (Two Pence Magic, 1929), which was made for the Kölnische Illustrierte newspaper. The same year, Richter also made Alles dreht sich, alles bewegt sich (Everything Turns, Everything Revolves) for the Berlin film production company Tobis. Alles dreht sich, alles bewegt sich reveals the tricks of filmmaking to the viewer: people are cut in half and turned on their heads; the astonished audience is seduced. This was Richter’s first sound film, and it reflected his admiration for Russian filmmakers, especially Dziga Vertov. Like Vertov, here Richter experiments using sound contrapunctal to the film’s visuals.
In 1929, Richter began to work on a film, about everyday life, with Sergei Eisenstein – at the time the star director of the Soviet Union. The film did not have its premiere until 1969, two decades after Eisenstein’s death, when it was shown with the title Every Day. Richter regarded Soviet cinematography enviously in the late 1920s. He believed that Soviet filmmakers, unlike their counterparts in the capitalist West, had the opportunity not only to make socially relevant films, but also to use the most innovative technology in realizing them. He viewed Vertov as the greatest innovator. Richter became disillusioned, however, after he was invited to Moscow in 1929 to make the film Metall (Metal). He was not able to work independently and was constantly watched. The final straw was when a member of Richter’s team disappeared – Richter suspected the secret services. He left Russia as quickly as possible. The film, though already shot, was never completed.
Richter’s activities became even broader. Beginning in 1922, he edited the Constructivist magazine G, and in 1929 he curated the famed Werkbund exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart. But he always stuck with painting. As late as 1971, when he was living in New York, he said, ‘I’m a painter, and I will remain a painter who makes films.’2 Richter had emigrated to the United States in 1940, having fled Germany in 1933 and spending the intervening years primarily in Switzerland. From New York, he greeted the end of the Second World War with a giant scroll painting: two panels that were nearly five metres long and a metre tall, bearing abstract geometric shapes alternating with amorphous forms, primarily red and yellow in colour and set against a background of affixed newspaper clippings. He named this work, which he created between 1943 and 1946, Stalingrad (Victory in the East).
During the same period, he shot the roughly one-hour-long film Dreams That Money Can Buy which was completed in 1947. ’A dream story mixed with reality’, as Richter put it, the film tells the story of a person who discovers that he can see his dreams while he’s awake if he looks into his own eyes in a mirror. This discovery gives him the idea of turning his special ability into a lucrative business, as he can also read others’ dreams in their eyes. The film unfolds as a series of the dreams of the protagonist’s clients. Here Richter used the individual dream sequences of his artist friends: Man Ray conceived an erotic story, Alexander Calder presented a circus and Duchamp imagined a dance of revolving discs. This film also tackles one of the major themes of surrealism: the fetishization of the gaze. But Richter would not be Richter if he did not also parody this fetishization through exaggeration, showing naked, attenuated female bodies stretching out and becoming disproportionate. At the same time, he allows himself to be seduced, blatantly celebrating the dazzling gleam of dresses and diamonds while also appearing, somewhat snidely, to edit his friends’ avant-garde art works among these goods.
Richter’s work anticipates a great many things that would become standard in art after the collapse of Modernist ideals: the oscillation between abstraction and reality that is now generally well-established and the fluctuation between imagination and current events that is seen today in the installations and films of Jeremy Deller for example. Already present in Richter’s work was an ambivalence between the strictness of a critical, de-fetishizing gaze and the pleasure of looking; between criticism of and fascination with the aesthetic of consumer goods – as seen, for example, in Richard Prince’s early photography. Richter owes his artistic flouting of the either/or imperative – the foundational principle of Modernism – to the Dada experiences that taught him to subvert all dogmas, even those of Modernism. These experiences became a starting point for him, both in and beyond his art. ‘Polarity’, he said, ‘is a general life principle’.3
Translated by Jane Yager
1 Hans Richter, Dada Kunst und Antikunst, Cologne 1978, p. 33
2 Cleve Gray (ed.), Hans Richter by Hans Richter, London 1971, p. 152
3 Hans Richter, Prinzipielles zur Bewegungskunst, cited in Christoph Bareiter et al (eds.), Hans Richter Rhythmus 21, Würzburg 2012, p. 67