Gropius Bau
Exhibition poster “Hans Richter Encounters – ‘From Dada till today’”
Exhibition poster “Hans Richter Encounters – ‘From Dada till today’”

Hans Richter

Encounters – “From Dada till today”

One can also pursue politics with art.
Everything that intervenes in the processes of life, and transforms them, is politics.
Hans Richter

The oeuvre of Hans Richter (1888-1976) spanned nearly seven decades. Born in Berlin, he was one of the most significant champions of modernism. Berlin, Paris, Munich, Zurich, Moscow and New York were the major stations of his life. He was a painter and draughtsman, a Dadaist and a Constructivist, a film maker and a theoretician, as well as a great teacher. His great scroll collages remain icons of art history to this day. His work is characterised by a virtually unparalleled interpenetration of different artistic disciplines. The link between film and art was his major theme. Many of the most famous artists of the first half of the twentieth century were among his friends.

“Hans Richter: Encounters from Dada to Today” is the title of one of his books, which appeared in the 1970s. In post-war West Germany it was preceded by a rediscovery of this significant artist, who was hounded by the Nazis and whose work was shown as part of the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937. Now, for the first time since the 1980s, an exhibition is being dedicated to this great Berlin artist in his native city. It includes over 140 works, including his major films and some fifty works by artists whom he influenced. Hans Richter worked with multimedia in an era when this term hadn’t even been invented. He regarded film as part of modern art. “The absolute film opens your eyes to what the camera is, what it can do, and what it wants.”

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art developed the exhibition in cooperation with the Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Centre Pompidou Metz. Timothy Benson is the curator. It demonstrates how Richter comprehended his working style, which bridged many disciplines, and what impact his work had on the art of the twentieth century.

Over the course of ten chapters, the exhibition describes the artist’s extensive body of work: Early Portraits / War and Revolution / Dada / Richter and Eggeling / Magazine “G” / Malevich and Richter / Film und Foto (FiFo) / Painting / Series / Confronting the Object. Significant avant-garde works along with films, photos and extensive documentary materials transform this exhibition into an important art event.

Hans Richter was active in the broad field of the European avant-garde beginning in the 1910s. Not only art, but also the new medium of film interested him from the very start of his artistic career. In 1908 Hans Richter began his studies at the School of Fine Arts in Berlin. He switched to Weimar the following year. In 1910 he studied at the “Académie Julian” in Paris. Starting in 1913 he was associated with Herwarth Walden’s gallery “Der Sturm” and became acquainted with the artists of the “Brücke” and the “Blauer Reiter”. He distributed Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” to hackney drivers in Berlin. In 1914 he also drew for Franz Pfemfert’s magazine “Die Aktion” and was called up to military service in the summer of that year. In 1916, having suffered severe wounds, he travelled to Zurich (“an island in a sea of fire, steel and blood”) where, together with Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and others, he founded the Dada movement, about which he would one day write: “…it was a storm that broke over the art of that time just as the war broke over the peoples.”

In 1918 he met Viking Eggeling, with whom he conducted his first film experiments as precursors of “abstract film”. Both dreamt of discovering a universal language within film which could promote peace among human beings. In 1919 Richter served as chairman of the “Action Committee for Revolutionary Artists” in the Munich Soviet Republic. He was arrested shortly after the entry of Reichswehr troops. His mother Ida secured his release.

Richter’s first film, “Rythmus 21” in 1921, was a scandal – the audience attempted to beat up the pianist. Moholy-Nagy regarded it as “an approach to the visual realisation of a light-space-continuum in the movement thesis”. The film, which is now recognised as a classic, also attracted the attention of Theo van Doesburg, who invited Richter to work on his magazine “De Stijl”. In 1922 Richter attended two famous congresses where many of the most significant avant-gardists of the era assembled: The “Congress of International Progressive Artists” in Düsseldorf and the “International Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists” – the Dada movement was dismissed on this occasion. In 1923 Richter and other artists founded the short-lived but celebrated Magazine “G” (for “Gestaltung”, i.e. design), which sought to build a bridge between Dadaism and Constructivism. Prominent participants included Arp, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mies van der Rohe, Schwitters and van Doesburg.

In 1927 Richter worked with Malevich, who was then visiting Berlin for his first large exhibition, on a – naturally, “suprematist” – film, which, however, was never completed due to the political situation. In 1929 Richter curated the film section of the famous FiFo exhibition (Film und Foto), a milestone in the history of the cinematic and photographic arts. More than 1,000 photos were presented – curated by, among others, Edward Weston and Edward Steichen for the USA and El Lissitzky for the USSR. More than sixty silent films were shown, including works by Duchamp, Egeling, Léger, Man Ray and Chaplin. This important exhibition, initiated by the German Werkbund (which was founded in 1907), was also shown in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which in those days was called “the former Museum of Applied Arts” – a fact that is rarely mentioned in current photographic histories. On this occasion, Richter published his first film book: “Film Enemies of Today, Film Friends of Tomorrow.”

That same year, the first “Congress of Independent Film” was held in the remote Swiss castle of “La Sarraz”: Hans Richter was invited along with Sergei Eisenstein, Bela Balazs, Walter Ruttmann and others. He made a film with Eisenstein, which has since been lost. The Congress is still regarded as the first festival dedicated solely to film. Back then, the still young art of film-making had to struggle for recognition.

Also that year, the Nazi storm trooper organisation denounced Richter as a “cultural Bolshevik” for the first time. In 1930 he travelled to Moscow to make the film “Metal”. But objections by the Soviet government prevented its completion. In 1933, when the Nazis seized power and Richter was living in Moscow, storm troopers sacked his Berlin flat and made off with his art collection. Fearing for his life, he was soon forced to flee Moscow without a penny to his name. In the Netherlands he made advertising films for Philips. He also worked for a number of chemical companies that were eager to invest in film as an advertising medium. He sought permanent residency in France and Switzerland. In Switzerland, he and Anna Seghers cooperated on a script, and in 1939 Jean Renoir arranged for him to create a major film project in Paris. But the outbreak of war prevented this film as well.

When the Swiss immigration police ordered Richter to leave the country, he succeeded in emigrating to the USA in 1941. Hilla von Rebay, an artist and, like Richter, a former member of the famous Berlin “November Group”, was then an adviser to the New York arts patron Solomon Guggenheim. With Guggenheim’s help, von Rebay managed to implement the idea of a “Temple of Non-Objectivity” – the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (1939), which would become the later Guggenheim Museum. The museum provided Richter with the necessary invitation and a Jewish support fund for refugees sponsored his long journey. In 1942 Richter became a teacher for film – and later director – at the Institute of Film Techniques at the College of the City of New York. Until 1956 he trained students who were later counted among the great figures of American independent film, including Stan Brackhage, Shirley Clarke, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas.

In 1940s America, after a fifteen-year pause, Richter began painting again. In 1943/44 he created his great scroll paintings and collages about the war: “Stalingrad”, “Invasion” and “Liberation of Paris”. After the war he made the episodic film “Dreams That Money Can Buy”, working alongside five of the most famous artists of the twentieth century: Léger, Ernst, Calder, Ray and Duchamp. In 1946 he presented his first great American art exhibition in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery.

In the 1950s, Richter returned to Europe for the first time following his emigration to deliver lectures. Portions of his art collection, which he had left behind in Germany following his move to Moscow, were returned to him. Numerous exhibitions led to the rediscovery of Hans Richter’s works in Western Europe as well. He worked in Connecticut during the summers and spent his winters in Ascona near his artist friends. Richter experienced an extraordinarily prolific creative phase during which – after he set aside his painting utensils in the late 1960s – many works appeared using special collage techniques. In 1971 he became a member of the Berlin Academy of the Arts. By the time of his death in Switzerland in 1976, his work was shown and appreciated in many exhibitions in Western Europe. Now, for the first time in over thirty years, Hans Richter can be rediscovered in an exhibition from Los Angeles.

The following films by Hans Richter will be shown at the exhibition:
Rhythmus 21 (1921); Rhythmus 23 (1923); Die Malerei und die Probleme der Architektur / Painting and the Problems of Architecture (1927/1970); Animation Film with parts Storyboard I-II and VII-IX (1927/1970); Making of Malevich's Die Malerei und die Probleme der Architektur (1927/70); Inflation (1928); Filmstudie / Filmstudy / Etude filmique (1928); Vormittagsspuk / Ghosts before Breakfast (1928); Rennsymphonie / Race Symphony (1928); Alles Dreht Sich, Alles Bewegt Sich / Everything Turns, Everything Revolves (1929); Zweigroschenzauber (1929); Every Day (1929/69); Die neue Wohnung / The new Dwelling / New Living Place (1930); Hello Everybody (1933); Van Bliksemschicht tot Televisis / Vom Blitz zum Fernsehbild / From Lightning tot Television (1935/36); Hans im Glück / Hans in Luck (1937/38); Wir leben in einer neuen Zeit / We live in a New World (1938); Die Eroberung des Himmels / Conquest of the Sky (1938); Die Geburt der Farbe / The Birth of Color (1939); Die Börse / The Stock Exchange (1939); Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944-1947); 6 Modern Artists Make a Film (1948); 8 X 8. A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1952-1957); Dadascope (1956-61); Chesscetera (Chess: Passionate Pastime: The Story of Chess over 5,000 years, 1956/57).

Excerpts from films by the following artists will also be shown: Vertov, Ivens, Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Duchamp, Strand, Sheeler, Clair, Eisenstein, Eggeling and Ruttmann. A recent documentary film by David Davidson about Hans Richter complements the exhibition: “Hans Richter. Everything Turns, Everything Revolves”. The extensive catalogue contains not only numerous illustrations but also contributions by Timothy Benson, Philipe-Alain Michaud, Edward Dimendberg, Yvonne Zimmermann, Doris Berger and Michael White.

Organised by Berliner Festspiele. In cooperation with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Centre Pompidou Metz.

Supported by the German Capital Culture Fund (Hauptstadtkulturfonds).

Partners WALL, ALEXA, BTM-Visit Berlin, DB, Ameuropa, US Embassy, Bouvet Ladubay
Media partners Tagesspiegel, zitty, rbb fernsehen, Exberliner, Weltkunst