Hans Richter: Prophet of Modernism by Stephen C. Foster

Hans Richter: Prophet of Modernism
By Stephen C. Foster

It is common knowledge that artists are submitted to a variety of historiographical fates that are too frequently the result of factors extrinsic to the artist or his/her work, such as the point in time and place from which the history emerges, trends in scholarship, and late reevaluations of early careers by the artists themselves, among many more.

Recent American scholarship has typically formalized the work of early twentieth-century European movements in ways that decontextuatlize the works and diminish access to their historical significance. For decades the analysis and evaluation of these movements has subjected them to normative procedures that sidestepped political issues and guaranteed their conformity to the separation of art and pointed social purpose that was pioneered by the modern academy of the 1940’s, fifties, and even sixties. This work has been disproportionately aestheticized in such a way that the losses for cultural history exceed the gains for art’s formal and craft in history. In the course of such aestheticization, as but one example, the futurists were removed from the center of modernism and relegated to the fringe. Some artists have been treated more kindly. Thus, Marcel Janco looms larger than life because of his important involvement in the Zurich dada although, and very understandably, Janco himself minimized his early years in order to serve his late career as an artist. Always a major factor in the arts of the World War I era, his later silence concerning, what sometimes seems to be his disavowal of, the early years was based more on political disillusionment than on special care for his later career. Others, such as Johannes Baader, were consigned to complete oblivion. In all the above respects, Hans Richter (Johannes Siegfried Richter, 1888-1976) is no exception. Indeed, our perception of his is the result of a particularly complex set of American historiographic circumstances. There seems to be considerable merit in detailing these circumstances here and in briefly discussing their ramifications for the Richter literature; how he has been structured into the historical fabric of the twentieth century, especially by American historians and critics; and what this has meant for our assessment of his significance.

One of the interesting, although by no means correct, results of his Americanization is something of an imbalance in the literature that favors Richter the filmmaker. This is based in part on the sociology of midcentury academics and, in part, on Richter’s assimilation into an American historiography of European modernism in which Europeans participated (with the exception of French sources) only marginally. There are a variety of good reasons for this situation: primarily, that Richter’s most significant work during the eight years preceding his emigration to America in 1941 was largely in film, for which activity he became best known as a contemporary American artist. Understandably, those writing about Richter belonged to the community of critics rather than community of historians. This was inevitable for an artist, then still very much alive, who was exerting a considerable influence on the American art scene. Even Richter himself paid rather little attention to his “history” until late years when he published the influential and still standard test Dada: Kunst und Anti-Kunst, 1964 (Dada: Art and Anti-Art, 1965). There is nothing “wrong” with any of this, in and of itself. Richter’s achievements as a filmmaker and documentarian are truly impressive. His impact on American art as a teacher, artist, and administrator was considerable. He continued to produce major work. However, this reputation did have the inadvertent and unintentional effect of presenting his earlier career as “background” for his later career. It is to help restore Richter’s earlier European career to the context of cultural history that this exhibition and monograph have been prepared.

Hans Richter’s centennial (1988) provided the perfect occasion for beginning a reassessment of his early work, this time from the perspective of a broader cultural history. Richter has been reexamined at a time when the very concept of modernism is being closely scrutinized and subjected to more sophisticated analysis. The careful historical examination of the origins of the twentieth-century avant-garde has become more pivotal than ever to the modernist debate. The crucial questions – the place of art in culture, the “crisis” of modernism, etc. – have been restored to the early twentieth-century points from which they emerged. In the process, the importance of Richter’s later years seems to have receded (not, it should be stressed, in terms of the significance of the art, but in terms of its value in centering our most pressing questions). However, Richter’s major importance in these early years, in particular how his activities and works ramified them, has been disproportionately understudied, a deficiency only now being corrected. Certainly, some of the literature on Richter offers valuable building blocks for the present undertaking, as our citations will show. This is particularly true of Hans Richter: Malerei und Film (Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt am Main, 1989) and Hans Richter: 1888-1976 (Kunsthaus Zürich, 1982). Yet something still needs to be added to further contextualize Richter’s central role in the constitutions of early twentieth-century modernism itself.

It is somewhat understandable that Richter’s star should rise as others’ once considered masters are on the wane. This entails, in part, the reconception of an artist’s career, now seen less as the cumulative production of great (good) works that as an effective configuration of visual moves, understandable largely in terms of the specific contexts in which they were made. And this is but a footnote to the erosion of artistic authorship, in general, in favor of the concept of “author functions” (Foucault). Less inclined to concentrate on the uniqueness of the author’s voice (who is speaking?), present interests focus on the use of authorial authority as a strategy for achieving particular objectives.

“Creator culture,” by means of which we have erected our pantheon of the great twentieth-century artists, is dissolving in the face of questions and concerns involving the “culture of creation.” This reversal of the terms is a corollary to the demise of idealist aesthetics. The significance of an artist, rather than being measured by the standards (any standards) of quality and the coherence of his/her oeuvre, is now assessed in terms of the constitutive potential of the presented work in the in the context of competing visual discourses. At any given time, it is the visible participation in, interception of, and, more importantly, influence on the creation of a place within a contending discourse (a place in the culture of creation) that will secure an artist’s activity as historically important.

Understandably, establishment has a considerable stake in resisting such a perspective, based on its investment in stable cultural/artistic canons and the industries by which they are sustained and perpetuated. And such resistance, based on these investments (museums, galleries, university curricula, art publications, and other dimensions of our modernist institutions), go far to explain why Richter has been consigned to a somewhat minor place in the history of twentieth-century art. For some, that is, his works satisfy standards of quality less well than others (a few of his contemporaries that dominate the textbooks), betray a trajectory in his career that may be viewed as dependent on “pioneers” (this is, of course, less true of his work in cinema), and appear to be somewhat opportunistic (in terms of more contemporary thinking, strategizing his moves). Richter is perceived as more a function of a period’s authorship that a great self-created author who speaks universal truths.

More an individual who sought power through use of authorship – one whose interests revolve around the deployment of authorial power – Richter, notwithstanding objections from the academy, compellingly embodies our contemporary concept of a politically motivated artist. He assumes a pivotal place in what could be described as the politics of cultural creation. It is precisely in this respect that Richter can be separated from most of his contemporaries: George Grosz, the political artist, Raoul Hausmann, the Kunstkritiker, et al. Consciously or not, Richter subscribed to an open-ended concept of culture where one’s position was described less as “for” or “against” are understood better as strategies (pragmatics) than as metaphysical imperatives. It was within this context that Richter prepared the ground for action “for” or “against” rather than the mere pronouncement “for” or “against.” For Richter, even film was created as an instrument – the constituting means – of critique, and was driven by its content in only a secondary way. If one is to understand Richter, it must be through his transaction of politics by art, and in his manipulation of art in the interest of cultural politics by art, and in his manipulation of art in the interest of cultural politics. He was more concerned with utilizing available “concepts of revolution” than in being “revolutionary” (the former, as a deployment of a concept of revolution, is the way his involvement in Munich’s Second Council republic should be understood). Richter stepped into (or was invited into) roles of others’ creation, occupied positions available for use and form which action could be taken, positions from where culture could be constituted. The positions he occupied were, for Richter, not culture, and the creating of the position (and the creation of works of art) would not have meant the creation of culture (as it would have then, and continues to, for the academy).

It follows that there is limited value in describing Richter’s work in terms of genre (painting, drawing, film, etc.), for their stylistic or rhetorical power. More akin to alternative positions, or potential coordinates within competing artistic discourses, “ways of making art” collapsed into strategies of “taking sides.”

One stands to learn less about Richter from modernism than one does about modernism from Richter; that is, ironically enough, while modernism makes Richter smaller, Richter makes modernism larger. Richter is challengeable, and has been challenged, on precisely and only the grounds upon which being a modernist is presently faulted or, if not faulted, perceived as limited and dated. At the same time, Richter describes a radius for modernism that far exceeds the disapproving grounds of his critics. Indeed he illustrates the variousness of modernism and underscores the significance of some of its agendas for the present; in short, he becomes part of “our” modernism and the dimension of modernism that we can still embrace.

This book is constituted to reflect a series of paradigm shifts within which Richter’s objectives were redefined and restrategized. These correspond roughly to the expressionist and Dada years (one could defend their separation), the immediate postwar revolutionary years (including his short tenure n Munich), his involvement with international constructivism and the development of the nonobjective cinema, the politicization of film the late twenties and thirties that he pursued in the context of Nazism and, arguably, Richter’s first ten years in the United States.

In concentrating on these periods, we make every attempt to contextualize Richter’s career securely between his early training in modernism and his later American years, but the latter, for all practical purposes, are omitted from the present project. This decision rests on the nature of questions currently being addressed to modernism, understood in relationship to Richter’s pivotal early and middle careers. In no way does it constitute a judgment on the aesthetic merit of the artist’s earliest (student) and latest work.

Richter’s European and early American career describes a clear and paradigmatic course of development, form his initiation into modernism through his acquaintance with the Beliner Sezession, the Blaue Reiter group, and the 1913 “Herbstsalon,” to his involvement with Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm and the radicalization of his art based on his affiliation with Franz Pfemfert’s journal Die Aktion. It was particularly for his contributions to the latter that he became known as one of the first expressionists to politicize his art heavily (Richter was the subject of a special issue in 1916). The journal, for all intents and purposes, defined the most influential anti-war stance among German artists and authors (in part based on its negative relation to the politically uncommitted but successfully art-world-based activities of Walden’s Der Sturm), and became one of the German publications most completely identified with the “crisis of Expressionism.”

Richter’s subsequent involvement in Zurich Dada, heir in many respects to Hans Leybold’s Revolution (Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, key founding members of Zurich Dada, were initially involved in the group), was crucial. Equally significant were his contact with Theodor Däubler and the political radicalism evidenced by his contact with radical socialist Ludwig Rubiner, and his formulation of the Radical Artists Group, an organization based in Dada’s perception of the significance of the Russian Revolution of 1917. These activities coincided with the initial experiments in Zurich that were to lead the formulation of a nonobjective cinema with Viking Eggeling.

Richter’s chairmanship of the Action Committee of Munich’s Second Council Republic, for which he was sentenced to a five-year term of imprisonment (suspended through the mediation of influential friends), represented the peak of his directly revolutionary activities and immediately preceded his move to Berlin (with Eggeling) in 1919.

His subsequent work in the areas of both the plastic arts and filmmaking aligned itself with the experiments of Dutch De Stijl and international constructivism. These formal and theoretical sympathies expressed themselves eloquently in his publication of the journal G (Gestaltung) between 1923 and 1926 (other contributors included Hans Arp, Theo van Doesburg, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Kurt Schwitters, Naum Gabo, Friedrich Kiesler, and Man Ray; in his involvement with conferences at Düsseldorf (Werner Gräff, Raoul Hausmann, van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren, Schwitters, El Lissitzky, et al.) and Weimer (Schwitters, Arp, Max Burchartz, van Eesteren, van Doesburg, et al.); and in the films from 1921 through 1926 (Rhythmus 21 through Filmstudie). The end of this period is marked by a planned film collaboration with Russian suprematist Kasimir Malevich, a project never produced but for which some sketches do exist.

The years 1927 and 1928 witnessed the politicization of Richter’s cinema (Inflation, 1927-28), which achieved its most advanced statement in the uncompleted Metall of 1931-33. Although little work exists from between 1933 and 1941, the years of his German exile, plans for a series of uncompleted films (Candide, 1934, et al.) demonstrate the extent to which Richter’s role as an artist had been more than ever, radically politicized. At this point, he approached his films as weapons of political efficacy; they were separated from his other work not on generic but on instrumental grounds. Less concerned with “inventing” (creating) nonobjective cinema, alternative filmmaking, or political filmmaking, he saw the cinema as an option to be explored for its transactional usefulness in a period of acute political crisis. It is remarkable that this is verified most completely in the unrealized political films of the late twenties and thirties (No time for Tears and The Lies of Baron Münchhausen, among others). It is these “noncreations,” ironically enough, that achieved the greatest political potency, that revealed themselves as pure cultural transactions, and that best underscored film as a position for negotiating culture.

Based, in large part, on the nature of these experiences, Richter made an enormous contribution to modernism in the United States following his arrival in 1941, and he functioned as an important conduit between American and European art communities. His influence on the American film community, and on American art in general, was in part the function of his directorship of The Institute of Film Techniques in New York and his close involvement with Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery.

Few have participated as completely as Richter in the major issues of early twentieth-century movements, and few reveal in their work an equivalent historical logic. Richter, as well as any artist and better than all but a few, epitomizes the mission, aesthetic strategies, and historiographic directionality of early twentieth-century modernism. Part of a generation of artists that passionately believed in the power of art to change the complexion of social and cultural affairs, he assumes greatest significance in relationship to what has been aptly characterized as “the heroic years” of the European avant-garde. Richter is deserving of a major catalogue, written from the perspective of cultural history, that provides his work with the historical texture required of any full appreciation of its significance; and one that rehabilitates the artist’s original intentions as serious and sophisticated advocacy of the early twentieth-century avant-garde.

Stephen C. Foster, “Hans Richter Prophet of Modernism,” in Hans Richter: Activism, Modernism, And The Avant-Garde. Ed by Stephen C. Foster. (Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 1998)


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