The movie camera – that bastard son of a thousand alchemists, illusionists, inventors, and old showmen – could have been purpose built for the Dadaists and the Surrealists. If it had slipped into obscurity or been written off as gimmick after they had made use of it, its journey into existence could have been said to be worthwhile. It's as if their paths were always destined to cross.
In the Hans Richter show Encounters – "From Dada till today" at Martin-Gropius-Bau you can see the very genesis of avant-garde film. Richter, a painter who moved in Cubist and Dada circles was pursuing a language of abstract imagery with Swedish artist Viking Eggeling. Taking inspiration from musical scores they developed a system of painting across long scrolls as a means of demonstrating progressive sequences and rhythms. When these ideas led to experiments with film they were released from the inertia of the canvas, given flight, and realized through the manipulation of time and form.
The Dadaists are remembered as provocative image makers with a penchant for shock and stark, arresting juxtaposition, but the intention of Richter and Eggeling was to discover and develop a system of communication that would promote universal peace and understanding. Sadly they did not: the premiere screening of Richter's Rhythmus 21 (1921) outraged its audience to the point that they seized the accompanying pianist and dealt him a severe beating.
Hans Richter, Fuge 23 (Fugue 23), 1923/1976, Screen print on fabric, 61 x 344.2 cm; Private collection © Estate Hans Richter Foto © Museum Associates/LACMA
How must it feel to be so ahead of your time? Equally exhilarating and frustrating, I would imagine – as every time traveller seems to discover the future can prove violent and alien when experienced prematurely.
The rigorous research and preparation that went into those early efforts is presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition. On inspection one could argue that this is not only the birth of a new genre of film but a foreshadowing of technologies not yet discovered. These films appear to have been more programmed than scripted, the graphic language as au fait to a computer coder as to a Structuralist filmmaker. In his 1976 essay on Computer Generated Art, Malcolm Le Grice cites these films as forebears of the then emergent genre.
Richter plays with time again with Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts before Breakfast) (1928), using stop motion to bring to life objects – the everyday trappings of bourgeois life: bowler hats, clocks and bow ties – making them conspire against and confound their masters. The original soundtrack by Paul Hindemith was destroyed by the Nazis, but the film survived to become a classic of its kind and evidence of Richter's early drift towards more Surreal imagery. Far from hindering the film, the destruction of the original soundtrack has meant that it has been re-imagined time and time again. The original production’s improvisational spirit lives on and recent scores have been created by artists including The Real Tuesday Weld, Ian Gardiner, and Steve Roden.
Hans Richter, Sergei Eisenstein, and Man Ray, Paris, 1929; © Estate Hans Richter © 2013 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
There's more than just film here. There's painting, photography, sculpture, and architecture. There are a number of Richter's early Visionary Portraits created in the golden hour of dusk, when the light was fading and the brightly coloured oils could be barely differentiated on the canvas, taking shape "before the inner eye rather than the outer eye." There are many examples of work by Richter's friends and contemporaries.
The exhibition has made its way from Los Angeles to Berlin painting a picture of Richter as a versatile, industrious man who applied sensitivity, political awareness, and an eye for new approaches in almost everything he did and was a part of. Equally artist, filmmaker, innovator, theorist, and teacher, he was also a great collaborator. His list of friends and associates reads like a who's who of twentieth century avant-garde: Cabaret Voltaire, Marcel Duchamp, Sergei Eisenstein, Man Ray through to Jonas Mekas and John Cage.
Richter also seems like a man blessed with serendipity, something that he fed into his work throughout his long career. His luck included narrowly escaping death by friendly fire in the first World War, meeting Eggeling and discovering film, evading prison and the clutch of the Nazis, finding new friends and prospects in exile, etc, etc. Always one step ahead of the game, he never seemed to miss an opportunity, took everything that life could throw at him and poured it into his art with rigor.
(Image on top: Hans Richter, Vormittagsspuk, 1928, black and white, 35mm film, ca. 7 min; © Estate Hans Richter)