The Rhine II was produced in an edition of six; Tate owns the fifth in the series. This large colour photograph depicts a stretch of the river Rhine outside Düsseldorf. The image is immediately legible as a view of a straight stretch of water, but it is also an abstract configuration of horizontal bands of colour of varying widths. The horizon line bisects the picture almost exactly in the middle. Above it the overcast sky is a blue-grey. In the bottom half of the image, the river is a glassy, unbroken band between green stripes of grass. At the bottom of the picture in the immediate foreground is a narrow path. Below it is another thin band of manicured green grass.
Gursky works with a medium format camera, taking pictures which he then scans into a computer where he can manipulate them. His aim in using digital technology is not to create fictions but rather to heighten the image of something that exists in the world. He has described the genesis of this work, saying, ‘there is a particular place with a view over the Rhine which has somehow always fascinated me, but it didn’t suffice for a picture as it basically constituted only part of a picture. I carried this idea for a picture around with me for a year and a half and thought about whether I ought perhaps to change my viewpoint … In the end I decided to digitalise the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me’ (quoted in Annelie Lütgens, ‘Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet’, Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, p.xvi).
Gursky digitally erased buildings on the far side of the river from his picture. This manipulation enhances the image visually, giving it more formal coherence. Rather than the sense of a specific place, the picture conveys an almost Platonic ideal of a body of water traversing as landscape. Gursky talks about this image in terms of its contemporaneity, saying, ‘I wasn’t interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it. Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ; a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river’ (quoted in ‘… I generally let things develop slowly’, Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, p.ix).
The Rhine II represents a tendency in Gursky’s work towards abstraction. Throughout his career he has periodically made images whose formal and conceptual simplicity place them closer to the tradition of abstract art. Untitled I, 1993 is a close-up of an industrial carpet that recalls a grey monochrome painting. The grid-like ceiling depicted in Brasília, General Assembly I, 1994 has affinities with minimal objects. The Rhine II shares with these earlier photographs an emphasis on textures; the distinctions between the shimmering gloss of the river, the smudged softness of the clouds, the lush carpet of the verges and the hard matte path lend the photograph sensual contrast.
The photograph is a reworking of an earlier image, The Rhine, 1996. The earlier work has a slightly higher and flatter viewpoint and a more uniformly grey sky. As Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, has pointed out, both images have been ‘festooned by critic’s invocations of Barnett Newman’ (Peter Galassi, ‘Gursky’s World’, Andreas Gursky, p.41). Newman (1905-70) favoured vertical compositions with straight lines or zips in a contrasting colour interrupting the monochrome surface of his canvases (see Adam, 1951-2, Tate T01091). Gursky’s images read like horizontal versions of Newman paintings.
Gursky’s contemporary view of the Rhine also reflects historic depictions of the German landscape. The same subject was treated by Anselm Kiefer (born 1945) in his large book of woodcuts The Rhine, 1981 (Tate T04128). Like the seascapes of Gerhard Richter (born 1932), Gursky’s photograph is a detached comment on the sublime connotations of Romanticism. Equally, the figurative content of the picture serves to gently parody the sublime connotations of Abstract Expressionism.