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Hans Richter Photo

Hans Richter

German Painter, Graphic Artist, and Filmmaker

Born: April 6, 1888 - Berlin, Germany
Died: February 1, 1976 - Minusio, Locarno, Switzerland
Movements and Styles:
Dada
,
Surrealism
,
Surrealist Film
"The life we led, our follies and our deeds of heroism, our provocations, however 'polemical' and aggressive they may have been, were all part of a tireless quest for an anti-art, a new way of thinking, feeling and knowing."
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Hans Richter Signature
"Surrealism devoured and digested Dada."
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Hans Richter Signature
"Everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape .. the total negation of everything that had existed before."
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Hans Richter Signature
"I conceive of the film as a modern art form particularly interesting to the sense of sight. Painting has its own peculiar problems and specific sensations, and so has the film. But there are also problems in which the dividing line is obliterated, or where the two infringe upon each other. More especially, the cinema can fulfill certain promises made by the ancient arts, in the realization of which painting and film become close neighbors and work together."
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Hans Richter Signature
"Problems in modern art lead directly into the film. Organization and orchestration of form, color, the dynamics of motion, simultaneity, were problems with which Cézanne, the cubists, the futurists had to deal"."
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Hans Richter Signature
"I believe firmly that music for the silent avant-garde film is essential. Of course it depends on what music. However I do not believe in the synchronization of sound and image... I agree with Man Ray that we must avoid complete synchronization. We should find a way to let the sound and the picture move on its own in the same direction, but nevertheless, separately. This refers to the spoken word as well as to the musical and other sounds."
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Hans Richter Signature
"One of the few truly incorruptible artists of the left."
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Fredrich Kracaur

Summary of Hans Richter

A cosmopolitan figure, Hans Richter's very career embodies the history of modern art from World War I to the 1960s, Dadaism to Constructivism, Surrealism, and Fluxus. As editor of the seminal journal G, he created a vital link between Western European art and the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s. Even more importantly, he was a pioneering filmmaker, among the first to make purely abstract cinema, and a mentor to American directors of the 1950s and beyond. Personally, Richter experienced the 20th century's political nightmares first-hand, from combat in World War I in which he was severely wounded, to persecution by the Nazis and artistic censure in the Soviet Union. He never saw his art as separate from the conflicts and sufferings of humanity, but instead devoted his art to the creation of a better society.

Accomplishments

  • Profoundly influenced by music, Richter was able to capture the rhythmic nature of abstract forms in paintings, drawings, and films, and to synthesize the oppositions of dark and light, and organic and geometric shapes by using counterpoint like a musician. Richter also collaborated with major composers of his time and considered their scores essential to his films, pioneering the fusion of image and sound in cinema.
  • Though Richter made both representational and abstract art, he created an abstract visual language that was universal, able to convey not only aesthetic experience but revolutionary political ideas as well.
  • He transcended 19th century concepts of painting through film, setting static shapes into visual movement. This dynamism of film, made possible through new technology, for him embodied modernity itself.
  • Richter used a synthesis of abstract forms, Dadaist collage, and the ancient medium of scrolls to create epics of contemporary history, despite the fact that many modernist artists considered history painting to be outmoded.

Important Art by Hans Richter

Progression of Art
1917

Self Portrait (Visionary Portrait)

This self-portrait is one of eleven Visionary Portraits that Richter exhibited at the Dada exhibition 'Die Neue Kunst' ("New Art") in Zürich in 1918. Employing an Expressionist style, Richter painted the works in this series at twilight with no artificial lighting. His intention was to paint when colors were 'indistinguishable' to the eye on the canvas. He claimed that this would provoke an expression of spontaneity, still governed by chance. (Richter had been deeply influenced by the experiments in chance carried out by his close friend and fellow-Dadaist, the artist Hans Arp, one of whose most famous works is the 1917 Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance.) Richter recalled that to produce the Visionary Portraits he put himself into an: "auto-hypnotic trance... thus the picture took shape before the inner, rather than the outer, eye allowing color to freely flow and the hand to work almost unguided.") Richter's use of automatism and his search for a deeper reality beneath the everyday anticipate the concerns of the Surrealist artists of the 1920s, whom Richter later claimed had "swallowed and digested Dada." Like many major modernist artists in Germany, Richter's use of strong colors and expressive brushstrokes would change in the aftermath of the First World War and throughout the 1920s to a more linear, objective, geometric style.

Oil Painting - Museo d'Arte di Lugano, Switzerland

1917-20s

Dada Köpfe (Dada Heads)

Richter's series of Dada Heads are some of the most recognized works to emerge from the Zürich period of Dada. This series of drawings and woodcuts explored the limits of portraiture, often going beyond all recognizable representation of the subject to achieve pure abstraction. Many of the drawings have a free, gestural quality, quite liberated from traditional portraiture. The Dada Heads series as a whole records Richter's experiments with structure, composition, and counterpoint. "More and more of the object," Richter wrote, "got lost in the necessity to balance the black with the white (paper), to establish a simple polar relation."

Richter felt a struggle with structure, composition, and counterpoint. His intention was to experiment with oppositions - black and white, positive and negative. But in the process Richter found himself stuck and not knowing how to proceed. Seeking inspiration, he found it in a chance meeting with the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, who customarily held his intellectual salon at the public fountain outside Zürich train station. While a strong supporter of experimental music and often seen as a precursor of Futurism, Busoni was also deeply committed to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Richter told Busoni of his dilemma in trying to balance black ink with white paper. Busoni suggested that Bach's use of musical counterpoint might help Richter solve the problem. He advised Richter to study the preludes and fugues that Bach had composed for his wife Anna Magdalena. Richter, who loved music and could play piano, explored the pieces as recommended. It proved a revelation Richter found in the music, "the up and down... strong and weak, a movement and countermovement. I used the paper like a musical instrument." This drive for the abstraction and simplification of form, and the obsession with positive and negative are both motifs which will emerge in Richter's later film experiments.

India ink pen and brush drawing - Private Collection

1921

Rhythmus 21

This incredibly influential early abstract animation was the result of Richter and his partner Viking Eggeling's foray from the static canvas to a moving one. Lasting only 3 minutes, the film shows squares and rectangles moving across and within the flat plane of the screen in a mesmerizing rhythm. They move forward, backward, vertically, and horizontally. The theme is of contrast - of size, light, and angle, of positive to negative, from black to white, foreground to background, and of change - the forms grow, break apart, and finally fuse together into pure light. Everything is interaction, there is no narrative to speak of, though the ceaseless interplay of forms does have a dramatic quality, like a cosmic clash, with one shape seeming to dominate. The forms have a striking similarity to Russian Suprematist painting, such as The Black Square (1913) by Kazimir Malevitch. When Malevitch came to Berlin in 1927 (accompanied by a Cheka agent to prevent his defection), he proposed collaborating on a film with Richter that would explore Suprematist form and theory. Though Malevitch produced a script, the film was never made.

Theo Van Doesburg in the influential journal De Stijl saw this work as an attempt to surpass "the static nature of easel painting." Theo Van Doesburg showed Rythmus 21 during various lectures he gave in Paris in 1921-1922. Audiences at one venue were so outraged that they allegedly beat up the pianist accompanying the silent film.

Music was an important part of Richter's films. Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Paul Bowles, and Robert Abramson are among the many composers with whom Richter collaborated throughout his film-making career; indeed Richter saw his films in musical terms, noting: "I made my paper rectangles and squares grow and disappear, jump and slide in well-articulated time-spaces and planned rhythms." It was visual music as Richter put it: "the articulation of time instead of the articulation of form."

1923-26

'G' : Materials for Elemental Form Creation

Richter published his magazine "G" (Gestaltung - meaning form) to share his theories on film, architecture, design, and even fashion. The journal was co-edited by Richter with the great Russian Constructivist graphic designer, El Lissitzky and Bauhaus artist Werner Graff. G became one of the key Constructivist journals in Europe in the 1920s, alongside Ma (Hungary), De Stijl (Holland) and El Lissitzky's own Berlin-based publication, Vesh-Objet-Gegenstand. G constituted a vital link between central European modernism and the Soviet avant-garde.

In the magazine in 1926, Richter published his "Absolute Film Manifesto" which stated: "Film needs no audience. Film needs artists!" Here, Richter set out his vision of cinematic rhythm and experimental film, and it is clear that the struggle with counterpoints that the artist experienced with his Dada Head drawings is also at play in his theory of film, almost verbatim

"The film is a play of relationships of light.
The relationships of light have both qualitative and quantitative character: degree of brightness, proportions, etc., ... film communicates very authentically the relationships of tension and contrast in the light. These relationships consist of light and dark, small and large, slow and fast, horizontal and vertical, etc. ... the individual parts stand in active tension to one another and to the whole, such that the whole remains intellectually [geistig] mobile within itself."

1928

Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast)

In this short film Richter shifted from the abstract animation of Rhythmus 21 (1921) to pioneer a dazzling technical skill. He created a world where "objects are also people and follow their own laws." Indeed they do. Flying hats, tea cups, beards, appear and disappear, objects and human characters move in reverse. Richter uses trick shots, overlays, and fast motion to make trees bloom, he uses slow motion to show tea cups crashing to the floor, reverse motion to show water retreating back into a hose. He revisits his obsession, as seen in the earlier Dada Heads series, with counterpoint and opposites through light/shadow, negative/positive, and superimposition.

While the film is full of Dada whimsy and anarchy, there is a darker undertone. If objects are people, then are people objects? There is violence shown in the breaking cups, in gun play, fights, and floating heads. Richter had fought and had been severely wounded in the First World War; he had seen the brutality humanity could inflict. He, his sister Vera, his friends, and his films later fell victim to it when the Nazi party denounced them as "degenerate" and destroyed much of Richter's cinematic work, including the original score for this film, which had been composed by Paul Hindemith, one of the most important composers of Weimar era Germany. A score is currently being recomposed by the Rescoring Richter project.

1943-44

Stalingrad (Victory in the East)

This epic 16-foot long scroll-collage records the key turning point of World War II - the Soviet victory in Stalingrad. It had been one of the most brutal episodes of the War and the first serious setback for the Nazi forces on the Russian front. Declared a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis and unable to return to Germany for being Jewish, Richter had kept newspaper clippings of the war, calling them "proclamations of inhumanity". He incorporated the clippings in the scroll under the geometric forms, and- as such the work reads from left to right, including headlines such as "Workers Battle For Stalingrad", "Stalingrad Blows Up Its Bridges," and ending with the clippings "Nazis' Stalingrad Chief Captured" and "Stalingrad Free." The scroll format had been used by Richter in the 1920s for his film experiments with Viking Eggeling.

In this scroll, biomorphic (curved, organic) forms are set against rigid geometric shapes. The black, white, grey, and red forms represent the Nazis while the organic shapes represent Stalingrad's Russian defenders, the people themselves. Richter was inspired in this work by a line from Tolstoy's preface to War and Peace: "It is never the generals but always the people who decide the outcome of a war." Richter conceived of this work as a rhythmic, musical symphony - "finally, " he wrote, "the multi-colors dissolve the gray, black, and white war machine and the symphony of free forms swallows up, totally, the geometrical ones."

Stalingrad is an epic history painting, both political and personal. Richter had lived in Russia from 1930-1933 during the filming of the ill-fated movie Metall (Metal) and though alienated by Stalinism, sympathized with innovative Soviet artists such as El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevitch, and Sergei Eisenstein. By using the scroll medium for this work, Richter does more than depict or monumentalize an episode in history; unlike Picasso's static Guernica, to which it is often compared, Richter's scroll - with its origins in cinematic dynamism - shows history in motion, the process of history itself unfolding. While employing modernist abstraction, the scroll hearkens back to ancient civilizations that used scrolls as preservers of history, and one is also reminded of the Jewish Torah which is traditionally written on scrolls. Richter's Stalingrad is passionately contemporary while at the same time deeply rooted in human history.

Oil and Scroll Collage, including news clippings - Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC

1947

Dreams That Money Can Buy

In this stunning full-length experimental film the protagonist sees his dreams reflected in his eyes and realizes "if you can look inside yourself, you can look inside anyone!" As such, he sets out to sell dreams. It features seven dream sequences by Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Richter himself, which explore fantasy and desire, to an innovative score by Louis Applebaum, Paul Bowles, and John Cage. It is dream-like in its soft colour palette, and deep-focus cinematography. Although the film dealt with dreams, and featured Surrealists - Andre Breton did not accept it as truly Surrealist due to its narrative. The final episode is Richter's - where a blue man represents his universal man. He sits at a card table but another character objects: '"but who would want to sit at a table with a blue man?" This may reflect themes of collaboration and displacement - the Nazi persecution of the Jews and modernist artists, and the war-imposed exodus of his fellow artists from Europe to New York. Commenting on the film, Richter said it was made with: "my old friends from our beloved but bereaved Europe: Calder, Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Man Ray - the cooperation of two Americans, two Frenchmen and two Germans, in the then cultural center of the free world."

1957

8x8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements

The title of this film, 8x8, refers to the number of squares on a chessboard. Richter called chess both an "intricate pattern" and a "fantastic game." Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning (all three of whom appear in the film) as well as other Surrealist artists were fascinated by chess. Duchamp in particular became a ranked, Olympic-level chess player after famously "quitting" art in the 1920s. The Surrealists were fascinated by chess. Chess had been used as a metaphor from Lewis Carroll to Freud due to the symbolic relationship of chess to life, a game of risk, skill, and potential transformation (a pawn can become a queen).

As in Richter's 1928 film Ghosts Before Breakfast, objects in 8X8 behave like people and things which appear fixed, start to shape shift. Richter was at the heart of the American avant-garde and some scenes in 8X8 were filmed on the lawn of his home in Southbury, Connecticut with his friends who were also the giants of modern art - Jean Arp, Jean Cocteau, and Yves Tanguy. The subtitle recalls Richter's 1920s experiments with art as a musical composition. Chess also reflects his lifelong obsession with counterpoint - for of course chess is a game of opposites: black against white. Richter retained his sharp interest in music as part of the film. He commissioned original music by Robert Abramson, John Gruen, and Douglas Townsend noting: "8 x 8 as gives me the freedom to experiment with sound as well as with the image. I think I have opened there a number of new ways in the use of sound. I start the film with a burst of music, romantic clavichord music. After the audience settles down and relaxes, the changes start - whole sequences with sound effects only, interrupted stuttering speech." It is interesting to note that the sound engineers of 8x8 were none other than Louis and Bebe Barron, composers of the groundbreaking electronic music score for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

Biography of Hans Richter

Childhood

Richter was born in Berlin into a prosperous Jewish family, one of six children. Richter began to draw in his early high school days, producing several portraits of his schoolmates as well as sketches from nature and urban life. Richter's mother, Ida Gabriele, was an accomplished harpist and pianist and instilled a lifelong love of music in her son. After graduation, Richter decided on a career in art, but his father, Moritz Richter, insisted that he train as an architect. In preparation for a career in architecture, Richter endured a two-year stint as a carpenter and joiner's apprentice in his father's business, the "Mississippi Grass Twine Company" of Berlin.

Eventually Richter got his way and from 1908 onward he studied at the Berlin Academy of Art, the Academy of Art in Weimar, and the Academie Julien in Paris. As part of his training, Richter copied Old Master paintings by Velazquez, Tintoretto, and Rubens, as well as the works of more recent German artists of the 19th century, including, Wilhelm Leibl and Franz von Lenbach. Germany had a buzzing avant-garde art scene at this time, alive with new ideas: Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and early Expressionism (including the work of the young Die Brucke artists). Soon, even newer art movements such as Futurism and Cubism would explode on the Berlin scene. Germany was also pioneering the new medium of film, with innovators such as Oskar Messtor and Guido Seeber. Richter's first ecstatic encounter with modern painting occurred in 1908, when he saw Paul Cézanne's The Bathers exhibited at the Berlin Secession (led at that time by the influential and courageous German-Jewish artist, Max Liebermann). "Suddenly I was struck," Richter remembered, "by a kind of musical rhythm...the first contact with the gods of Modern Art."

Early Training, War, Political Activism

By 1913, Richter had entered the avant-garde circles of the Berlin art world, particularly through his friendship with Herwarth Walden, editor of the seminal journal Der Sturm, as well as director of the Sturm Gallery, where Richter saw the latest Futurist and Cubist paintings and works by Expressionists such as Ernst Kirchner and Wassily Kandinsky. Richter also befriended Franz Pfemfert, editor of the radical artistic, literary, and political journal, Die Aktion (Action), which in 1916 devoted a whole issue to Richter, publishing several of his drawings and woodcuts as well as an essay on him by the Expressionist poet and critic Theodore Daubler (the first study of Richter's work ever written). Through Die Aktion, Richter also came into contact with anarchist and socialist activists, including Rosa Luxemburg.

This vibrant artistic life ended in 1914 when Richter was drafted into the Deutsches Heer (German Imperial Army) at the start of the First World War. He made a pact with two Expressionist poet friends, Ferdinand Hardekopf and Albert Ehrenstein, to meet, should they survive, at 3pm at the Café de La Terrasse in Zürich in 1916. In the war, Richter, part of a reconnaissance division on the Easter Front, was shot and temporarily paralyzed, recalling "I had to close my eye with my hand, and I could speak with only one side of the mouth." Transferred to a military hospital near Berlin, Richter married the nurse caring for him, Elisabeth Steinert. There he learned that one of his brothers had been killed and another wounded. In 1916, Richter was allowed to travel to Zürich for further medical treatment and was thus able to keep the appointment with Hardekopf and Ehrenstein, who had already made contact with members of a new artistic movement called Dada.

Richter plunged into this new movement, contributing to Dada shows and publications, and creating iconic Dada works such as the Visionary Portraits (1917) and Dada Köpfe (Dada Heads, 1918). Richter believed in the artist's power to shape political and social ideas, but it needed a universal language that could be understood by all - the language of abstraction. From Zürich he continued to contribute to Die Aktion but also to new ventures such as the Dutch periodical De Stijl, edited by Theo van Doesburg. Richter forged intense friendships during this period with the Roumanian poet Tristan Tzara and the artists Hans Arp and Marcel Janco. He also met the remarkable poet and cabaret performer Emmy Hennings, who was married to Dada founder Hugo Ball. Richter illustrated Hennings's novel Das Gefängnis (The Prison) and painted a powerful portrait of her as part of his Visionary Portraits series.

The end of the First World War brought great political unrest to Germany. Richter traveled to Munich in 1919 to witness events for himself, becoming caught up in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic led by the poet and dramatist Ernst Toller, who declared Bavaria an independent communist state. This experiment was soon put down brutally by various military forces, especially the Freikorps, a volunteer army of hardened war veterans that was employed by the new German Republic to suppress insurrection throughout the country. Friekorps members assassinated communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919. Attempting to escape Munich and return to Zürich, Richter was arrested (with his brother Richard) and imprisoned for two weeks until freed through family connections.

Berlin and Film

During the final phase of his stay in Zürich, Richter met and befriended the Swedish artist and filmmaker Viking Eggeling. Together, they returned to Berlin and set up a collaborative studio at the Richter family property in Klein-Kolzig. Here, Eggeling and Richter worked toward the creation of abstract film through countless experimental drawings and the development of long scrolls that would transcend painting and explore the dynamic transformations of abstract forms. It was intense and excruciating work: "We had bitten off something new, and we were not sure we could digest it: movement." In 1920, Richter and Eggeling began to photograph the scrolls with a movie camera, moving the camera along the scroll from left to right, bringing the geometric metamorphoses to life. This intense partnership lasted until 1921, falling victim to financial pressures and personality differences. Eggeling went on to create the ground-breaking abstract film Diagonal Symphonie in 1923, while Richter completed Rhythmus 21 in 1921, using simple geometric shapes to show how "rhythm gives meaning to forms." Richter also made innovative advertising films during this time, one of which, created for the Koschel flower shop, was projected outdoors onto the sidewalk, to the amazement of crowds of Berliners.

Richter divorced his first wife in 1921 and married Maria von Vanselow, a member of Rudolf von Laban's modern dance troupe. It was a short-lived union. After Eggeling's death in 1925, Richter married Eggeling's collaborator and companion, Erna Niemayer. Richter and Niemayer travelled to Paris together and found the Surrealist movement in full bloom. Richter disliked the founder of Surrealism, the poet André Breton, for being humorless and for excommunicating anyone from the movement who disagreed with him about art, politics, or morality (Breton did not, for example, allow homosexuals or drug addicts to join). In Paris, Richter was able to reunite with his old friend from Zürich, Tristan Tzara, and also became friends with painter Yves Tanguy, who would later appear in Richter's 1957 film, 8x8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements. Richter believed that Breton and Surrealism had "devoured and digested Dada." Surrealism also cost him his third marriage - Erna and Richter split and she went on to marry the Surrealist poet Philippe Soupault.

Richter would interact with a very different kind of artistic movement in the mid-1920s, namely Constructivism. The Constructivists in Soviet Russia sought total integration of art with daily life and politics, rejecting the notion of art as autonomous and individualistic. Several Constructivists gave up easel painting and turned instead to architecture, graphic design, and even to the creation of practical clothing for workers. The Constructivists saw abstraction as a new universal language that did not depend on literary or art historical knowledge but on the needs and bodily perceptions of the new, dynamic, socialist citizen. The Constructivists also embraced new technologies, such as cinema and the revolutionary Leica camera, which made street photography easier and more spontaneous. Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, and El Lissitzky were among the most notable Russian Constructivists.

In 1922 Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Rapallo Treaty, which promised economic and military cooperation between the two countries. In the same year, amidst catastrophic inflation and political chaos, a major exhibition of over 600 Soviet artworks was held in Berlin, to the astonishment of many German artists, though in fact many Constructivist principles were already evident in the late phases of Dada as well as in the program of the Bauhaus school in Weimar. Richter met El Lissitzky, who, with the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, was one of the few Soviet creative figures allowed to travel freely out of Russia and forge contacts in the West (and perhaps also spy on the activities of Russian intellectuals exiled in Berlin and Paris). El Lissitzky invited Richter to collaborate on his multi-lingual Constructivist journal (co-edited with Ehrenburg and published in Berlin) called Vesh-Objet-Gegenstand. Richter soon launched his own journal; from 1923-1926 he published the magazine "G" for Gestaltung ("Form"). Co-edited with El Lissitzky and the Bauhaus student Werner Graff, the journal published work by Tzara, Kazimir Malevich, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Mies van der Rohe. G is a vital link between Western and Soviet Constructivist thought.

To Richter, film was modern art - art in motion, free and direct. In 1926 he said that film was "rhythm that is portrayed with the means provided by photo technology." In Film Study (1926). Richter experimented with contrast in Two-Pence Magic (1929) with rapid shots, and in Inflation (1927) with double exposures and animation. In 1929 he curated the legendary "Film und Foto" exhibition in Stuttgart, showing 1,000 works by modernist European, American, and Soviet artists. Richter showed films by Charlie Chaplin, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, and even Germaine Dulac (creator of the first pure Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), based on a script by arch-surrealist Antonine Artaud). Richter and the legendary Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein collaborated on a short film Every Day (1929) in which they poked fun at ordinary life, although the subject of unscripted daily life itself was inspiring German and Soviet films, such as Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of the Big City (1927), Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and Curt and Robert Siodmak's People on Sunday (1930).

Richter began a relationship around this time with Margarete Melzer. She told him "I will never marry you, because as soon as one marries you one loses you." However their relationship lasted a decade during which Richter began to use film as a social critique. "Film," wrote Richter, "should deal with the social, political, and human ideas of their time." In Everything Revolves, Everything Turns (1929), he intercut men in a sauna, hands, a German flag, a bear, and a money exchange.

The 1930s saw the beginnings of the conflict between art and Nazi repression. Modernist artists would eventually be termed "degenerate" by Nazi cultural spokesmen: their "distortions" and abstraction compared to the faces of the mentally and physically disabled or Untermenschen ("sub-humans"). The Nazis had their own artistic canon, which rejected abstraction and expressionism in favor of a return to classical art. However, this same shift away from modernism would also take place in the Soviet Union, where, increasingly, abstract artists and Constructivists were being forced to submit to the new canon of Socialist Realism, which deemed abstraction to be "formalist," elitist, and bourgeois. Richter's situation was doubly dangerous in Germany: he was both a modernist artist and Jewish.

In 1930, Richter left Germany for the Soviet Union, where from 1930-1933 he attempted to make a film based on the brutal suppression by German military units of a strike by 140,000 metal workers in Henningsdorf. The film, Metall, co-scripted with Pera Attascheva, would never be completed. Stalin feared that the film would antagonize Germany, especially by 1933, with Hitler firmly in power. Soviet authorities hindered Richter's project relentlessly, calling for constant rewrites of the script and even arresting a member of the film crew. Growing suspicious of the Soviet regime, Richter abandoned the project and fled Russia. Unable to return to Germany (his Berlin apartment had already been searched and ransacked by the Gestapo), Richter would spend the next several years in precarious exile in Holland, France, and Switzerland., surviving by making documentaries such as Television (1936) and The Birth of Color (1938). The Nazis chose his art as a central example at their 1937 "Degenerate Art Exhibition," a vast show designed to mock and discredit modernist art. In fact, the exhibition proved embarrassingly popular, with an average of 20,000 visitors per day. During these years, much of Richter's art was lost or destroyed. Finally, via the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and at the invitation of Hilla Rebay, a painter who had been a friend of Richter's in Zürich and Berlin, Richter was able to find refuge in the United States. Rebay had immigrated to the United States in 1927 and become the first director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which had been founded in 1937 as an institution devoted to abstract, non-objective art. Richter adopted US citizenship in 1941.

The American Years

New York offered Richter new artistic opportunities - reunion with European exiles and an introduction to the new generation. As Richter put it "I had returned into the world of men in New York and started immediately to work and 'orchestrate' freely with form and color." He learned English from reading the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and began to lecture on film at the Institute of Film Techniques, in New York, mentoring future legends such as Stan Brackhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Stanley Kubrick.

Richter's relationship with Margarete had been ruined by war, so in 1941 he married his fourth wife, Friedl. During the 1940s he drew on the rhythm of his earlier scrolls, in historical tableau such as Stalingrad (1943-1946) and The Liberation of Paris (1945) to comment on the inhumanity of war. He was later compensated under the Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation. Richter learned that his sister Vera, crippled since childhood by a horse-riding accident, had been euthanized by the Nazis in 1943.

In the late 1940s and 1950s Richter's art took on more representational, figurative, and narrative aspects such as his legendary films: Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) and 8x8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957) made in collaboration with the giants of modern art, his friends Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder, and Yves Tanguy. In Robert Motherwell's Dada Painters and Poets (1948) Richter sadly recalled his Dada friend Marcel Janco, who had disappeared in the war. In 1950, he was delighted to hear that Janco was alive and artistically thriving in Israel.

Later Years

In the 1950s Richter's life settled into summers in Connecticut and winters in Ascona. He turned his dynamic energy to recording the history of Dada in his seminal book Dada: Art and Anti-Art as well as in the film Dadascope (1961), which features poems spoken by Arp, Duchamp, Hausmann, Huelsenbeck, and Schwitters. In one of his final essays, Richter reflected on the freedom and moral responsibility of the artist. The words of his 1917 Manifesto had been lived up to by his life. In 1962 he retired to Locarno, Switzerland where he died aged 87 in 1976.

The Legacy of Hans Richter

Richter's extraordinary artistic career pioneered and established film as an art form. His vision and experiments in mixed media and collaborative artistry blended painting, music, film, and art. His work as an artist and theoretician influenced practically all of the seminal movements of 20th century avant-garde art, including Dada, Suprematism, Constructivism, and Surrealism. In fact, Richter's work synthesized the two seemingly contradictory goals of modernism: the liberation from rational thought of Dada and Surrealism, and the rational "goal-oriented creativity" (El Lissitzky) of hard-edged Constructivism, reconciling the Dionysian and Apollonian extremes. It is in the medium film however that he went furthest, creating some of the earliest fully abstract cinema, exploring and articulating film's uniqueness as a form independent of painting.

As a pioneer of film, Richter mentored generations of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, William Greaves Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and Ken Jacobs. David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Inland Empire) cited Dreams that Money Can Buy as one of his favorite movies. Richter's experimental blend of visual/audio pioneered the mixed media arts of today. The project Rescoring Richter is rescoring his silent films, bringing new soundscapes to Richter's original vision, and continuing his passion for artistic collaboration.

In the 1960s, young American Fluxus artists were able to reconnect to Dada through Richter's continuing work as an artist as well as through his preservation of the history of Dadaism itself.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Hans Richter
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Content compiled and written by Jen Farren

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Hans Richter Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Farren
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 02 Jun 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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