Sir Herbert Read on Hans Richter
Hans Richter’s name will always be associated with the origins of the modern movement. Avant-garde has become a cliché expression, but in those formative years, between 1908 and 1918, there was an advance-guard of the modern movement, a small group of artists who had to penetrate into unknown country, a country with unfriendly inhabitants (the bourgeoisie). They had no resources, they were armed with their imagination alone, but they had immense courage, and what they did, in the heroic days of Dada, is now history, but history in which we still participate.
One might say that this avant-garde had to improvise its weapons, and they used everything at hand—the contents of the ash-can if nothing else was available. Richter realized from the beginning that the new technique of the cinematograph offered a unique opportunity to the artist, and his particular contribution to the modern movement is a consequence of this early inspiration. It has always been difficult to present the art of Hans Richter because it is a unique collaboration of the painter and the filmmaker. But the painter came first, chronologically speaking, and it was certain experiences with a purely abstract and geometrical art that induced Richter to experiment with the film. He had realized, about 1919, that the abstract rhythms of a painting could be prolonged almost indefinitely if, instead of confining the painting to a conventional rectangle of canvas, it were painted continuously on a scroll, as Chinese painters had often painted their landscapes and fables in the past. Once having painted a scroll in this manner, it was but a logical step to transfer it to a celluloid scroll and project the design on the screen instead of laboriously unrolling it by hand.
It should be realized that this particular experiment, at the same time that it liberated the spatial dimensions of the picture, introduced a new dimension into painting, namely, movement. We hear a good deal about movement in art to-day, as though if were a recent discovery, but Richter had explored various techniques for producing a sensation of movement on the canvas forty years ago. Strictly speaking, the effect we call rhythm, which has often been ascribed to paintings in the past, is perceptible only as movement, and movement takes place in time. One can, of course, make machines (which must be energized by power of some kind, such as an electric current), and this has been the solution of contemporary artists like Nicolas Schoeffer, Henry Kramer, Jean Tinguely and many others. Richter’s aim was rather different.
He wanted to use the formal experience gained by his work on paintings and scrolls to extend the possibilities of the traditional easel painting . . . into film. The film technique breaks down movement into articulated details which are then animated by the projecting apparatus. But when painted on canvas or scrolls, forms could be animated by the eye. The scrolls therefore offer a different sensation of movement. Forms painted on scrolls would be animated by the eye — eye, instead of being a passive receptor, is compelled to move over the extended surface of the canvas and this movement produces an “optical mixture” which is the new sensation, the rhythmical sensation.
Richter continued to experiment with the film and scroll technique, and Rhythmus 21, Rhythmus 23, Orchestration of colour (1923), Rhythmus 25 represent progressive stages in the development both of his painting and his filming. Then followed a series of films which, while not entirely abandoning abstract forms and symbols, are essentially “documentaries” used to express political or social ideas. The technique was now more dada or surrealistic rather than abstract, but when in 1941 Richter went to the United States he became two years later director of the Institute of Film Techniques. There he resumed his experiments with scroll paintings, taking historical subjects as his theme (Stalingrad, 1944; Invasion 1945; Liberation of Paris, 1945/1946), but using his rich knowledge of abstract harmony to give to them a coherent rhythmical structure.
Another direction in which Richter pioneered experiments that have been accepted had as its aim the synthesis of two or more formal elements usually treated us distinct or even contradictory—the planned and the accidental, the geometrical and the amorphous, the conscious and the unconscious. The exploitation of the accident is probably as old as Paleolithic Art; there is a whole aesthetic of the accidental in Oriental Art; but in Western Art hitherto such exploitation has rarely been used as a method. In Richter’s work over the years there is a whole wealth of material which shows him experimenting with this intention. It is not merely a question of form—of precise geometrical elements opposed, on the same ground, to fluid amorphous elements; the synthesis is also achieved by the use of contrasted materials—the precision of metal against decayed or broken wood (“Tre Piccoli Temi” is a beautiful example), or smooth surfaces against rough, incisions against projections, and so on, endlessly. In brief, Hans Richter has extended the whole conception of the medium in art; and by extending the expressive possibilities of a wide range of materials he has brought new dimensions of space and time within the scope of the plastic arts. He has suggested possibilities sufficient to inspire generations of artists in the future.
Richter is widely recognized as a pioneer of what is sometimes called the “creative” film (meaning the film as a work of art uninfluenced by the demands of the mass audience). But nothing is more irritating to an artist who expresses himself in various media (as did the artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) than the modern habit of arbitrarily confining the artist’s reputation to one medium. Richter is a total artist, a universal artist, and whether he expresses himself in painting, in writing, in abstract films or documentary films, it is always the same artist, freely expressing a unique vision. It is only possible to appreciate the significant place he occupies in the modern movement if we bear in mind the extraordinary range of his creative activities, and at the same time realize that they are all expressions of the same poetic vision.
Hans Richter, editions du Griffon – Neuchatel 1965. Introduction pages 5 – 6 & 7