Gerhard Richter. Landscape, exhibition view, Kunsthaus Zürich, 2021
Foto © Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zürich, Werke © Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter: Landscape, Kunsthaus Zürich
Interview with Hubertus Butin

31. May 2021
Emma Nilsson

The exhibition “Gerhard Richter: Landscape”, which is on view at the Kunsthaus Zürich until 25 July, was curated by the Berlin art historian Hubertus Butin. We got the opportunity to talk to him about it in mid-May.


How did the idea to focus exclusively on Gerhard Richter’s landscapes develop?

Since Gerhard Richter is internationally considered the most important living painter, there have naturally been many exhibitions of his art worldwide. This might give the impression that everything has already been researched and exhibited, but this is by no means the case. His oeuvre is so extensive and, above all, so diverse that there are many themes still to be explored in art-historical terms. These include Richter’s numerous landscape paintings, which have been a central pictorial part of his oeuvre from the late 1950s to the present day. Surprisingly, there has been only one exhibition project on this subject – in 1998, when Dietmar Elger mounted a show at the Sprengel Museum Hannover – but only oil paintings were on show. However, since landscape motifs in Richter’s work are not only in paintings, but also in drawings, prints, photo collages, overpainted photographs and artist’s books, as well as in three-dimensional objects, we wanted to take all these media into account in Zurich. There has never been an exhibition that attempts to illuminate the theme of landscape in such a comprehensive way in terms of media. In addition, there are many paintings on view that have rarely or never been exhibited publicly, so that even Richter connoisseurs will have some surprises to discover.


Can you briefly describe the concept of the exhibition and how it shapes the layout of the exhibition spaces?

There are five different thematic segments through which visitors can walk as if they were on a parcours. At the beginning, certain images are used to demonstrate that Richter’s depictions of landscapes are mostly based on photographic originals that he either made himself or that were taken from newspapers, books and photo albums. These works have a decidedly photographic aesthetic, showing that they are pictures of pictures.

The second room examines Richter’s relationship to German Romanticism. Many of the very vivid, atmospheric pictures of sunsets with wide skies and deep horizons, of rainbows, clouds or mist-covered landscapes are reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s art. However, Richter calls his paintings “cuckoo’s eggs” because they are perceived as romantic without being able to continue the spiritual tradition of Romanticism.

The next chapter deals with landscapes through abstraction. It is not merely a matter of a classical abstraction in the sense of an autonomisation of form, which so many artists have already gone through. Rather, Richter poses the question of how far it is possible to push the autonomy of form – in each case starting from a photographic model – without ending up in an arbitrary and complete absence of object.

The fourth room is devoted to landscapes that are fictional constructs. Using oil paintings, prints and photo collages, Richter depicts landscapes that can never exist in real life. Images of the sea, mountains and clouds have been put together in a way that makes them purely fictional constructions but only when the viewer takes a second, closer look does it become clear that the views are impossible.

The final subject are the overpainted landscapes. Richter has applied oil paint to the surface of landscape paintings, photographs and prints as non-representational, self-referential matter. These two simultaneous levels of reality of landscape representation and abstract colour matter have a close, refined connection in those paintings. They appear as an interlocking unity whose tension derives from the clear contrast between the different forms of production.


That may sound a bit too theoretical for some people. Doesn’t it?

As a curator, you shouldn’t underestimate your audience. Besides, you do need a structure in terms of content to bring a meaningful structure to the exhibition. However, independent of the art-historical and art-theoretical reflections, the project also offers a great sensual pleasure, with many wonderful, sometimes overwhelming images. Whether visitors are more interested in the sensual or the intellectual possibilities of experience is up to each and everyone. It is best to be open to both.


It seems to be essential for Gerhard Richter that his landscape works are based on photographic models. You describe this as “second-hand landscapes”. In between, some works also appear for which he presumably did not use photographs but that seem to be purely abstract. Why are these works also in the exhibition?

On the one hand there are paintings, especially from the 1960s and 70s, that only at first seem abstract, non-representational and self-referential, but whose mountain, park and city motifs are definitely based on photographs. These works dissolve the landscapes in broad, impasto brushstrokes, so that they are only recognisable as landscapes from a distance. On the other hand, however, as you have correctly observed, there are a few completely abstract paintings on show at the Kunsthaus Zürich. One, for example, is the almost seven-metre-wide oil painting “Sankt Gallen” from 1989. Both the title – which refers to an actual place – and an almost continuous horizontal line that suggests a horizon make landscape associations possible, so that we have included such paintings in the exhibition. However, the landscape does not impose itself but is only hinted at in a very restrained way – if you wish to see it that way at all.


Richter repeatedly employs techniques of defamiliarisation, whether by blurring with a squeegee or by cutting up photographic originals and assembling them with cutouts from other photographs. These techniques certainly contribute to a pictorial tension but would you also say that Richter explicitly negotiates the constructedness of landscape in the process? Unlike nature, landscape is a cultural creation of man.

Nature becomes a landscape when it can be experienced as a sensual object; that is, our culturally shaped perception turns what we look at into a landscape. In those landscape pictures that appear to be purely fictional constructs, however, something else is the issue. With these visionary designs, Richter seems to be tracing the aesthetic category of the sublime. Sublime is anything incomparably large, vast and overwhelming that surpasses any scale of the senses. In 1970, for example, the artist replaced the sky of the painted seascape “Seestück (See-See)” with a second seascape that he turned 180 degrees, which of course transcends any real experience of nature and turns this landscape into a place of the unreal.


In the past, Richter has often made architectural models of exhibitions in order to work out the presentation.  Did you have a free hand in the selection and / or hanging of the works?

I planned and presented the exhibition in Switzerland together with the curator Cathérine Hug from the Kunsthaus Zürich, and we were free to do as we pleased. Gerhard Richter had been informed about the concept and the selection of images and had agreed to everything, but he gave us a completely free hand with the hanging, which we naturally also felt was a great sign of trust. In some other exhibition projects, the hanging is actually planned very precisely by the artist himself, but I was pleased that he left this beautiful task, which I always particularly enjoy, entirely to my colleague and me.


A large number of the landscapes depicted are in Switzerland, especially in the area around Sils Maria. Can you say something about Richter’s relationship with Switzerland?

Gerhard Richter used to visit Switzerland often; he appreciated the landscape and culture. He particularly liked Sils Maria, often visiting and staying in the famous Hotel Waldhaus. Richter photographed the Swiss lakes, mountains and forests in other places as well and then used these motifs for his paintings or overpainted photographs. It is no wonder, then, that some of these landscape paintings were specifically acquired by Swiss museums and Swiss collectors. In percentage terms, we have borrowed many works from Switzerland. Overall, however, the paintings for this exhibition come from all over the world: Germany, Austria, Denmark, Monaco, London, New York, Chicago and Hong Kong.