Hans Richter and the capturing of time: Interview with Philippe-Alain Michaud, curator of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz

   |  17 October 2013  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Metz, 9 October 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

From 28 September 2013 until 24 February 2014, the Centre Pompidou-Metz is to present an exhibition entitled “Hans Richter: La traversée du siècle” (Hans Richter: Across a century). Examining over 50 years of the artist’s production, the show aligns Richter’s works with those of other 20th century artists, considering his works in a broader social, political and formal context. Art Media Agency spoke to Philippe-Alain Michaud, the Curator and Director of Experimental Cinema at the Centre Pompidou Metz, who organised the exhibition with Timothy O. Benson, Director of LACMA’s Rifkind, and Commissioner Cécile Bargues.

Can you tell me about your background? What made you want to organise this exhibition?
My current position is curator of the film collection at the Centre Pompidou. The exhibition was first held at LACMA in Los Angeles, then at the Centre Pompidou, and a third one is to take place in Berlin at Martin-Gropius-Bau. Hans Richter is of great interest to me, as he is at once a visual artist, painter and illustrator, and filmmaker. There’s an important relationship between the artist’s cinematic work, and his pictorial and graphic pieces. The solo exhibition which was presented in Los Angeles, which was chronologically organised, really demonstrated the great influence which Richter had on filmmaking, not only in terms of the final work produced, but right from the drawing board stage.

Film is generally considered to be an extension of photography, taking a picture and adding elements of movement and temporality. In the early 1920s, Richter reinvented this practice, placing drawings onto large film rolls in order to create a sense of movement. He took photographs these reels of drawings, image-by-image, using the same format as a cinema frame, a 4/3 ratio. The films were therefore created using drawings rather than real-life photographs. In a way he invented the abstract cartoon. His film was made of interlocking squares, which grow and diminish on the surface of the screen, creating the impression of depth. The shapes seem to move from the surface, giving this sense of a third dimension. It is clear that it does not take much for an image to pass from the surface of the screen, from the space, the cube. This is how Theo van Doesburg – one of the founders of the movement of this style – saw in film the possibility of integrating all forms of art, painting, design and architecture. At this time, he declared that painting without architecture has no raison d’être. During this period he was very close to Mondrian, but this film created a rift between the two artists.

How was this exhibition organised?

Richter is both an artist with a fascinating body of work, and a great catalyst. He was part of the Dada movement in Zurich in 1917, then in 1923 he was in Berlin, where he found himself in the centre of the Russian constructivists, the last of the expressionists, and was one of the first members, as well as a teacher, of the Bahaus style. Upon his emigration to the United States in the 1940’s, he remained at the heart of all artistic movements, as a close friend of Peggy Guggenheim, and teacher of film at City College in New York. In fact he taught the entire school of New American Cinema.

The exhibition shows the work of Richter, as well as his artistic encounters. The Los Angeles exhibition was entitled “Hans Richter Encounters”, while we decided to call it “La traversée du siècle (The passing of a century).”

We focus on Richter’s encounters as well as the historical dimension. The artist experienced many events: he saw the war, he saw the Spartacist Uprising, was an active member of democratic workers’ council in Munich, he was sentenced to life imprisonment before being released thanks to intervention from his family, he lived through the crisis in Germany and anti-Semitism, and began to create an anti-Nazi film in the USSR in the early 1930’s. He was however quickly forced to drop this project, as he was under threat of the Nazi police. Throughout the 1930’s, he travelled across Europe, living a nomadic existence, before arriving in the United States in 1940.

Why is it that France has not yet hosted a major retrospective of Hans Richter’s work? Do you think it’s a matter of taste?
His cinematic work has been exhibited before, in the collection of the Centre Pompidou. But Timothy O. Benson directed that exhibition more towards the painting side of his work, whereas we are more focused on the film side.

Was it difficult to secure a loan of the works?
A large part of the work came from the collection of MoMA in New York, as well as Swiss museums: the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Lugano museums. Works in private collections were more difficult to locate. In the late 1910’s, the artist created numerous works in ink, which were also harder to find. We did however have the help of the Richter Estate.

Have you presented the artist as a pioneer, who influenced other contemporary artists? Or did you decide to focus the exhibition more on the idea of an exchange, a conversation?
What we have put in place is more centred on the idea of exchanges. The disciplines of the artist are mutually enriching. Between 1923 and 1926, he was the chief editor of the emblematic publication G (for the German word gestalt), a magazine that he published between 1923 and 1926 with Mies van der Rohe and an impressive number of prominent collaborators including El Lissitzky, Jean Arp, Theo van Doesburg and Tristan Tzar. It combined articles in the field of art with ones based on industrial production. There were six issues, which brought together writers from all walks of life, and included reproductions of works by Mondrian and Brancusi.

There was a circulation of ideas amongst all the members of the avant-garde movement, so rather than “a pioneer” we should rather be talking about collaboration. He led people to produce pieces of group works; a magazine itself is in many ways a group work, too.

The exhibition is also presenting six video portraits of the cities that Hans Richter lived in (including Berlin, Moscow and New York). Do you see a relationship between these places and the practice of the artist?
I do not think there is a direct relationship, but the idea was to install a gallery of film works, so the films that we are showing are depictions of the cities where he lived and worked, specifically Berlin, Moscow and New York. The films featured are Moscou, a 1924 piece by Michael Kaufmann, Berliner Stillleben by Laslzo Moholy-Nagy and Berlin Symphonie d’une grande ville by Walter Ruttmann, as well as Lumières électriques, filmed in the late 20’s by Eugène Deslaw, a Ukranian who emigrated to Paris. In the work, Deslaw films the lit-up nighttime settings of Europe’s capital cities. The film Manhattan by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand inaugurates the tradition of avant-garde cinema within the United States, while the beautiful New York Portrait by Peter Hutton, although filmed in the 1970’s, is presented in the style of the first photographs ever taken in New York. These screenings are used to show that our relationship with film is not just limited to the cinema.

From the 1920’s to the 1970’s, the idea of the modern city was completely transformed, but I do not think that the city aesthetic had a direct influence on Richter’s work. In fact it could even be the opposite. The film Rythme 21 – his greatest masterpiece, and in my opinion as important in the world of film as Carré noir sur fond blanc by Malevitch is in the field of painting – has been a source of inspiration for architects of the Modernist movement, notably the Schroder House in Utrecht; made of screens, it refers back to the interlocking squares of Richter’s work.

 Richter is the author of several books, have these texts influenced your work as a curator? Are his books physically integrated into the exhibition?
The books are presented. Richter wrote a lot throughout his life, but he published his written works towards the end of his life, and they were particularly centred on the Dada movement. His book Dada, Art et Anti-art has had a very large circulation. It has been translated into around ten languages, and is a widely read piece of work. In the 1960’s he wrote about the history of the Dada movement, and put together a Dada exhibition consisting entirely of reproductions. These reproductions were installed on mobile picture rails which adhered to the form of film reels. The exhibition was very economical; it toured the world without the cost of insurance or transport.

Richter then returned to his own career, showing the Dada works, and creating links with the American avant-gardists of the 1960s. The last part of the exhibition consists of Rauschenberg’s reproductions of works by Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Lichtenstein. Rauschenberg has a keen awareness of what links the avant-gardists to the interwar years.

The books that are exhibited include, Adversaire du film d’aujourd’hui, ami du film demain, a book written according to the principles of film editing, with reproduced film reels placed alongside the text. It is designed as a film book. It is exhibited in its physical form, and we have installed an iPad to allow visitors to browse the book.

What is Hans Richter’s influence today?
His influence is always present with regards to film. Dutch artist Marijke von Warmerdam created one of her films in the form of a throwback to one of Richter’s films from the 1920’s, entitled Fantômes avant déjeuner, in which we see floating bowler hats. It is a film about the revolt of objects, a piece of contemporary art. Jonas Dahlberg in Sweden today makes explicit references to Richter’s work. Through his post as a teacher at City College, he influenced several generations of American artists and filmmakers, such as Jonas Mekas, who has for his part created his own school.

Will the exhibition travel to other museums?
Yes, it is to be shown at the Martin Gropius Bau in 2014.

What are your plans for the future? Is there an exhibition on an artist or a specific period that you hope to organise?
There are certainly things to be done in the same manner as this exhibition, for example on the American artists and filmmakers Robert Breer, Paul Sharits, and Bruce Conner, as their works pose the same sort of questions.

At the Centre Pompidou Metz we are currently preparing an exhibition on Eisenstein, who examines the relationship the between film, and painting and sculpture, of the past. This exhibition is planned for 2015.

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