Painting Sils Maria

Hans Ulrich Obrist on Gerhard Richter’s connection to the Engadin

Gerhard Richter, Silsersee, Maloja (Lake Sils, Maloja), 1992 © 2023 Gerhard Richter (09122023). Private Collection, Switzerland. Photo: Jon Etter

  • 23 February 2024

In the early ’90s, Gerhard Richter mounted a radical exhibition inside of the Nietzsche Haus in the Swiss Alps. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the German artist presented a series of small, overpainted photographs and sculptures throughout the house where the German philosopher once spent his summers. More than thirty years later, on the occasion of “Engadin,” curated by Dieter Schwarz at the Nietzche Haus, Sengantini Museum and Hauser & Wirth St. Moritz, featuring many of the originally exhibited works by Richter, we spoke with Obrist about this unique project set against the alpine backdrop of Sils Maria.

Francis Till: To start at the beginning, when did you meet Gerhard Richter, and how did “Sils,” your first exhibition working with him, come about? 

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I met Gerhard Richter around 1986, when I was eighteen years old and had started to make studio visits. I took night trains all over Europe. It was always my dream to visit Gerhard Richter because he was the painter I was most fascinated by. He had a big opening at the Kunsthalle Bernand where I summoned the courage to approach him. I said I had been following his work for many years, and that it was my dream to visit his studio. And he said, “Come next week. I’ll be back in Cologne.” So I took the train to Cologne to visit him, and that was the beginning of almost forty years of friendship, dialogue and many, many projects together. 

I told Gerhard that I was fascinated by the paintings he had done about Switzerland. Earlier on, he had done some Davos paintings, and I knew that he sometimes went on vacation in Sils Maria. I told him I often made the pilgrimage to the Nietzsche Haus, and he said, “The next time I’m there, we should be together in the Engadin.” 

We met at the Waldhaus hotel and had a lunch there, and actually went on a walk to the Nietzsche Haus that day, and to the famous rock where Nietzsche had the epiphany for the eternal return. So it was 1986 when I met him, and 1991, or 1992, when he invited me to visit him in Sils Maria.

Gerhard Richter and Hans Ulrich Obrist in Sils Maria, 1992

I had already begun to curate exhibitions in unexpected places. I was interested in the idea of house museums where art can, in a way, appear where we expect it to appear. But also in more intimate environments—I did a show in my kitchen with Fischli & Weiss, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and others; an exhibition in the Monastery Library in Saint Gall of Christian Boltanski; I started a museum dedicated to Robert Walser at the Hotel Krone Gais, which he often passed on his famous long walks.  

Gerhard and I started talking about this and I said, “What if we showed some of your works in the Nietzsche Haus?” And he was excited about the idea. So we reached out to Pierre-André Bloch, who at that time was the director of the Nietzsche Haus and told him, “We have this idea to do a very discreet exhibition, in the interstices.” 

Hence the idea of mirroring, with the small reflective sculpture in the room where Nietzsche had the Zarathustra epiphany, and inserting the overpainted photographs into the vitrines, where the museum displayed Nietzsche’s books, letters and correspondence. We wanted it to be a very discreet display, so that the Nietzsche Haus would continue to function as a place for memory for Nietzsche while, at the same time, there could be this other layer.

Gerhard Richter, 2.4.08, 2008 © Gerhard Richter 2023 (09122023). Private Collection. Courtesy Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf. Photo: Tino Kukulies, Düsseldorf

Gerhard Richter, 3.2.92, 1992 © Gerhard Richter 2023 (09122023)

FT: The exhibition “Sils” was important in Richter’s oeuvre in that it was the first time his overpainted photographs were publicly exhibited. Photography was already an established subject in his paintings. What, for you, was significant about these new works and what they proposed? 

HUO: This body of work had not received the attention it deserved at that time. When I visited Richter I was fascinated by these overpainted photographs where, all of a sudden, the abstract color would become the photograph and the photograph would appear to be painted. I remember visiting Gerhard’s studio again when the wall of Berlin had just come down, it was 1989, and he was more intensely layering color on top of the photographs. 

It began as a kind of functional aspect of the painting process—putting the colored dots on top of a photo painting, to see if the color corresponds to the photo—but then he liked it aesthetically and started to kind of artificially create that effect. These are the very early ones in “Atlas” (1960 – present). It’s only in the second half of the ‘80s that they became autonomous works.  

From the beginning, I was also interested in the aspect of chance in Richter’s work, which is present in the overpainted photographs. He would have piles of these photos in the studio and then would, working in a series, overpaint them. The way the colors are applied cannot be completely controlled, so chance enters in; some are completely overpainted, making the photo almost invisible, while others are only very scarcely covered. And then there are the overpainted photographs of landscapes, like the ones of the Sils Mountains. Gerhard took photographs of all the mountains surrounding Sils, like Pitz-Boval, and that’s in the exhibition. He not only took photos of these mountains before overpainting them, but he also found all of their names. The works have those names as titles.

“Richter’s overpainted photographs were a landmark moment in this whole relationship between painting and photography.”

He often worked in series, and on tables where he sort of lays the pieces out like a book, and then overpaints them. Doubt has always been present in Richter’s paintings, through “vorbehalt gegenüber der absolut gesetzten bildformulierung” or “reservations about an absolute kind of image.” That’s what intrigued me as a teenager, in the studio—how, all of a sudden, painting takes on the role of photography. I wrote once how, “in the repainted photos, we see a parallelism of these two forms of painterly practice, which refers to the simultaneous existence of contradictory groups of works and series of paintings in Richter’s entire oeuvre. The photographic landscapes appear to be wrong due to the superimposition of paint. Is painting on photography suddenly assuming their unmasked position? Photography’s pretense of claiming reality is relativized by the repaints. Splashes of paint present just as much ‘reality’ as the base on which they appear.” 

I had researched photography’s role in painting because, since 1839, the year photography was invented, painters have negotiated and dealt with photography. Eugène Delacroix, for example, took lessons in daguerreotype and became the founder of the Société Héliographique, often using photos of models for his paintings. Gustave Courbet owned a lot of photos for studying purposes for his paintings, and is one of Richter’s favorite painters. He has a painting by Courbet in his living room. If you look at Courbet’s wave paintings from the 1860s, they’re clearly dealing with the medium of photography. Edouard Manet painted the 1868 execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, based on press cuttings and photography, because it was the way Manet saw it, and is one of the few paintings he didn't create after nature, but after photography. So it’s a photo painting, you could say.  

I always felt that Richter’s overpainted photographs were a landmark moment in this whole relationship between painting and photography.

Installation view, “Gerhard Richter: Engadin,” Nietzsche-Haus, Sils Maria, 2023 – 2024 © Gerhard Richter 2023 (09122023). Photo: Jon Etter

FT: The 1992 exhibition featured a new sculptural edition, the Kugel (also included in “Engadin” across Nietzsche Haus, Segantini Museum and Hauser & Wirth St. Moritz)—stainless-steel balls that each carry the name of a local mountain. What was the background for this series and the original installation of this on the floor of Nietzsche’s bedroom? 

HUO: It was always clear that we didn’t want to install paintings or photographs in this room, which is sort of the center of the Nietzsche Haus where Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra. At the very beginning Richter said, let’s just not do anything in that room and keep it as found. So we just put this sphere, this Kugel, in the middle of the room, and let the room be mirrored in the sphere, sort of like Nietzsche’s epiphany.  

I used to play pétanque with Gerhard Richter. We would play with friends. I don’t really do it anymore today, and I don’t think he does either, but at that time, whenever I was in Cologne, we would go and play pétanque. I remember he had boules in the studio and they would mirror all the paintings, and he would sometimes give them a very gentle kick, and they would move somewhere else in the space. The whole sort of constellation in the space would change.  

FT: The Engadin has been a site of reflection and inspiration for numerous cultural and intellectual figures, from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, writer Thomas Mann and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, to a host of artists including Julian Schnabel, Richard Long, Joseph Beuys, the Giacometti family or alpine painter Giovanni Segantini. In what ways do you think Richter was drawn to this landscape as a subject, both personally and artistically? 

HUO: That’s a very big question, and something we are trying to address with the Engadin Art Talks program organized with Christina Bechtler, which every year invites artists who somehow connect their work to the Engadin. It’s amazing that this valley has attracted so many artists and philosophers over the decades.  

For me, it took a long time to reconcile myself with the mountains. Growing up in Switzerland, I always wanted to go to the beach, where my friends at school went swimming. I had to go to the mountains in summer, and somehow always felt a bit claustrophobic. The mountains blocked the view to the sea. So I had a slightly disturbed relationship with them. It’s really Gerhard Richter who made me discover the incredible beauty of the Engadin by visiting him there, and doing the show in Sils Maria. When we installed the show, we stayed together at the Waldhaus. I’ll never forget that. We were there for two weeks having dinner every night and installing the exhibition. 

So, I became friends with the Engadin again. I’ve returned every year and often visit my friends Norman and Elena Foster who live there. I keep wondering what creates this Engadin magnetism? Maybe it has to do with the atmospheric kind of tension between north and south in the Engadin—there is snow almost all year long, and so you think you’re very far north, and yet you always feel the south because, across the mountains is Italy. The light of Southern Europe and Northern Europe kind come together in an oxymoronic way. 

I’ve always had a lot of ideas out there. A lot of my exhibition ideas from the ‘90s onwards actually came out of my stays in the Engadin. I’ve written five or six books there. Maybe it has to do with the altitude, because of the oxygen.There isn’t really one explanation why the Engadin is so alluring, but it continues to be a magnet for a lot of people.

Gerhard Richter in front of Nietzsche Haus, Sils Maria, 2010. Photo: Peter André Bloch

Gerhard Richter: Sils, 1992 © Gerhard Richter 2023 (09122023)

FT: A beautiful artist book was also created on the occasion of the exhibition published by Oktagon and later republished by Ivorypress in Madrid, including essays by Peter Bloch and yourself. Revisiting “Sils” more than three decades later, what are your memories of this special project with Gerhard Richter? 

HUO: I think the artist book is one of the most underrated fields in the art world. When an artist works on an artist book, they often take it as seriously as an exhibition. You see that with Richter, in his amazing almost comic-like book with Sigmar Polke and Perry Rhodan, or his book about ice, from a trip to Antarctica. There were already a number of artist books in the early ‘90s, which he had done in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. And for “Sils,” Gerhard developed this really magical layout where some of the photos are upside down, which is something he continued to do ever since.  

There was also the book War Cut. During the first Iraq war, he combined randomly arranged text snapshots of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with detailed photographs he took of his painting at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. It’s a book I edited with him and Suzanne Pagé. We’ve often worked together on artist books. “Sils” was the first one.  

There’s a funny anecdote about that book: I had come up with loads of poetic and philosophical titles related to Nietzsche, and Richter thought these were all far too long and going to be embarrassing. So he gave me a great lesson in how to find a title. He said, the title needs to be much more laconic. So I said, “Sils Maria.” And he said, “Too long. ‘Sils.’” 

That was, of course, a wonderful title which aged really well. And for me, it was a masterclass in how to find a title. I applied it often. Years later, when he did the famous Cage paintings, I was in his studio, and he had done this extraordinary painting and needed a title. So I asked him a question. I didn’t ask him, where does it take place? We couldn’t call the paintings Cologne. It would be too obvious. I said, what music did you listen to when you did the painting? And he said, “Cage.” We both looked at the paintings. We saw how “Cage” was not only an interesting reference in relation to chance and control in these abstract paintings, but in the paintings themselves—how they’re almost cage-like structures. So the title was found.

Curated by Dieter Schwarz and presented across three venues in the Upper Engadin—Nietzsche-Haus, the Segantini Museum and Hauser & Wirth St. Moritz—Gerhard Richter’s exhibition “Engadin” is on view until April 13, 2024.

Engadin Art Talks (E.A.T.) is a forum of art, architecture, design, literature and innovation that regularly takes place in Zuoz in the Engadin valley.

Watch a conversation between Dieter Schwarz, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Giorgia von Albertini, Director Hauser & Wirth St. Moritz, from E.A.T. 2024.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a world-renowned curator, the artistic director of the Serpentine in London and senior advisor to the LUMA Foundation in Arles. Alongside his curatorial practice, Obrist has written extensively on and around contemporary art, with a particular interest in the interview format. His book Remember to Dream!, published by HENI, collects an abundance of thoughts for the day, dreams, drawings, musings, jokes, quotations, questions, answers, poems and puns from some of the world’s greatest contemporary artists, handwritten on everyday Post-it notes. Published in France by Le Seuil and by Kampa Verlag in Switzerland, a new biography A Life in Progress provides an exclusive insight into Hans Ulrich Obrist’s rituals, beliefs and convictions, the coherence of his choices and his determination to constantly renew himself.