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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:
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.


  • 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.

Biography of Hans Richter

Hans Richter Photo

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.

Progression of Art


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


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


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."


'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."


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.


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


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."


8 x 8: 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.

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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
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First published on 02 Jun 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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