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Hans Richter - Biography and Legacy

German Painter, Graphic Artist, and Filmmaker

Born: April 6, 1888 - Berlin, Germany
Died: February 1, 1976 - Minusio, Locarno, Switzerland
Movements and Styles:
Surrealist Film

Biography of Hans Richter


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 8 x 8: 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.

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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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