The realization that reason and anti-reason, sense and nonsense, design and chance, consciousness and unconsciousness, belong together as necessary parts of a whole – this was the central message of Dada. – Hans Richter
Johannes Siegfried Richter was born in 1888 in Berlin. While he wished to be a painter, his father convinced him to pursue architecture instead of painting, and he entered a one-year carpentry apprenticeship. From 1908 to 1911, Richter did follow his own calling and studied at the Art Academies in Berlin, Weimar and Paris. Two years later, he joined groups of expressionists from Berlin’s Sturm Gallery, Dresden’s Brücke, and Munich’s Blaue Reiter and, in 1914, joined Die Aktion, led by a group of expressionist artists and writers sharing socialist and antiwar sentiments. Mainly using its literary and political membership as subjects, Richter produced black and white drawn, woodcut, and linocut portraits for the Die Aktion Journal. Such visual abstractions borne of political thought informed much of his life’s work.
In 1916, Richter was wounded shortly after entering the war, and was discharged from active duty. Seeking medical treatment in Zurich with his new wife, Richter visited friends at the Café de la terrasse on a date proposed two years previously. New friends were made: Dadaists Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and his brother, Georges.
Richter participated in Dada events from 1917 to 1919 and first showed his paintings at the Galerie Corray. His “visionary portraits” – abstractions of his Dada friends, including woodcut “Dada heads” – were done in “trancelike states” beyond the visible world toward “a universal image.”
In 1918, Tristan Tzara introduced Richter to Viking Eggeling, a Swedish painter whose “systematic theory of abstract art” led the two collaborators to co-author “Universelle Sprache” (Universal Language), which posited “abstract art to language based on polar relationships of elementary forms derived from the laws of human perception.” This novel communication would be devoid of associations realted to the horrors of World War I.
Eggleling and Richter later produced abstract films, which were also novel in form and content. Universal Language also served as the basis of other films such as, Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, which introduced temporal elements into their abstractions. These inflections are also evident in Richter’s 1927 film, Vormittagsspuk (“Ghosts before Breakfast”), with its potent Dadaesque parodies of life.
Richter collaborated with Werner Graeff and Elizar (‘EL’) Lissitsky on the abstract film-focused magazine G (“Gestaltung” – “Structure”), funded by architect Mies van der Rohe, and to which Dadaists Tzara, Haussmann, Ray, Gross, Schwitters and Arp, among others, contributed. However, Richter’s membership with the Association of Revolutionary Artists forced him to flee from Germany, whereupon he landed in the US in 1941, and taught in New York’s Film Institute of City College. Richter retired in 1962 and returned to Locarno, Switzerland, where he died in 1976.
Other important Dada-inflected films by Richter include Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), 8×8: A Chess Sonata (1957) and Dadascope (1961). He is notable as the author of an important book on Dada by one of the movement’s core founders, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965. Reprint edition, London: Thames and Hudson, 1997). – MEK