Gerhard Rießbeck, Painter of Ice
lying over the tremendous sheets of ice around Greenland and Baffin Bay has given me some of the most visually astonishing experiences of my life. What a treat. On a commercial flight, those ice-covered regions are available to the eye for a limited time before the scenes fall behind in the jet-stream, though the impact is long-lasting. When I’d made a trip from London to Seattle in June I had the feeling that there was less ice than I’d seen in the past. I had no way of knowing if I was over a less icy place than I’d seen before or, as I imagined, seeing the effects of climate change. I’ll never know, but the trip made me think about Gerhard Rießbeck’s paintings of icebergs, which I’ve written about briefly here before, and I was eager to ask him about his experience.
At the height of a heatwave in late July I took a train from Munich to the pastoral village of Bad Windsheim, in the state of Franconia, Germany, where Rießbeck lives with his wife, who is a school teacher, and his children. As I stepped off the train a brief spate of rain fell, the first in weeks, and I took it as a sign of something fruitful, or at least welcome. In a van that smelled of linseed oil, Rießbeck drove me to his studio, where rows of large canvasses fill a third of the room. There, we gnawed on biscotti, ate grapes, and discussed art, ice, adventure, and climate change. —Elizabeth Lopeman
Elizabeth Lopeman: Painting icebergs is unusual. Why ice?
Gerhard Rießbeck: When I finished my studies at the university of arts in Nuremburg I had a grant to go to Iceland for 6 months.
Lopeman:An art grant?
Rießbeck: Yeah, and there’s one place in Iceland in the southeast where there is a lagoon, and there there are small icebergs, and it is the first time I saw icebergs and it was fantastic. And I painted the first iceberg, and then there was the idea to go every year to a landscape like that—a place without human input, without manipulation, without plants, and so I’m trying to see that kind of nature. I like the nature around here, it’s very nice, but I have painted here too much and I like to have a very clear composition. I like abstract art very much and I think there’s a connection between the pureness of these landscapes and the pureness of abstract art. But I’m not an abstract painter, so I have to look for a landscape that looks like that.
Lopeman: Also, the natural beauty around here has already been rendered by so many people before. Someone has already painted the leaves and the strawberries, right? The landscapes you paint aren’t seen by the masses.
Rießbeck: Okay, not in original, but everyone has seen and knows what it looks like in Antarctica, or what Greenland looks like and what an iceberg looks like from photographs and films. It’s not like I have to show them how it looks there, but I think the paintings transport a kind of feeling or a kind of situation between me, or people [generally] and nature—a feeling of how to be small in context with nature. Just like on a painting with small figure and a huge glacier, nowhere else can I find that kind of feeling. Every land on earth is populated, and nature is just for a resource for mankind. The first painting I saw with ice was from the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. There’s a painting in the Hamburg Kunsthalle of a very small ship that crashed into huge icebergs, Das Eismeer, it was a kind of painting that maybe changed my life, and I just wanted to see that kind of landscape. Friedrich didn’t see that, he just painted it from imagination—kind of like I’m doing my paintings.
Lopeman:Did he do a good job?
Rießbeck: Yeah, but he painted the foreground brown and that’s not what the foreground looks like. But it was traditional to paint like that, so it looks not so realistic, but it transports the feeling of that kind of nature.
Lopeman: Your work doesn’t remind me of Friedrich, but it captures the sublime in a way reminiscent of Friedrich; the spectacle.
Rießbeck: Erhaben in Deutsch.
Lopeman: Why don’t you paint directly from photos?
Rießbeck: Because it’s already been seen. I take photos but I don’t use them for painting because it’s boring, I think. I work very regularly, very much, and the only thing that keeps me working is that I’ll have a surprise while I’m working. If I knew exactly what it will be at the end to me that would be very boring, I wouldn’t like to do that. Maybe it’s a very traditional way to paint but I wouldn’t do it.
Lopeman: That makes sense, because your skill, your talent, can come through, but if you’re copying, you’re probably using your left brain, and if you’re imagining and creating, I think that’ s your right brain doing more work.
Rießbeck: Yes, I think if I used a photograph the paintings would look much more perfect because at the beginning I knew exactly what it looked like. I have to accept that it’s not that perfect because to me it would be boring just to make a product, if you look closely you can see some things where I changed my plan. But that’s the reason to paint, I have to look at the painting and decide what to change. Because when you don’t copy from a photo, you’re creating a story that comes directly from your mind—there’s more to it. I like to make a painting where there could be a story in it. My paintings are like theater props without a story, and people can wonder about what that story can be. It’s a bit like theater. One has to think about: If I could get to the iceberg would it be dangerous, or what’s going on there? I don’t tell the story, I just give the ingredients.
Lopeman: There is also something about the unknown. In a Freudian sense these icebergs can be a bit like the id coming out. It does set a stage. It’s an opening for something and a certain tension is created. Also, the fact that you create very natural looking scenes that don’t exist in nature creates a tension between nature and the imagination.
Rießbeck: I have some realistic qualities, but to combine it in one painting it’s just like creating a new thing. And sometimes it’s the wrong cloud and the wrong structure of water and sometimes I can’t reach the quality that I need. Sometimes it’s the second or the third time or much more.
Lopeman: Do you go to see ice every year?
Rießbeck: Nearly. Last year was the eighth time in Greenland, but it was the first time I experienced polar night and I started painting houses because the architecture was interesting at night and with the houses came color, and with the darkness came the need for colors and before that I only had gray and brown. I walked the small village and the windows are lit at night and it looks like Christmas and I saw all the light and the illumination of the harbor at night.
Lopeman: You initially went on scientific excursions to these places?
Rießbeck: Yeah, there is an institute that has a ship that goes to Antarctica in the winter and Arctic in the summer and I traveled with them both places. It was the fist time I saw this real ice. But it was on a ship, and it’s totally different to see nature from a ship, because you always have people all around you and you have the ship all around you.
Lopeman: Did you go as an artist?
Rießbeck: Yes, as the expedition painter. In former times they would take a painter on expeditions and I told the people from the institute I’d like to go as a painter like in former times. And I told them I wanted to paint one painting each day, and I did that—I kept a diary and I painted a painting every day. But I didn’t have to paint for scientific reasons. One trip took six weeks in the Arctic, between Greenland and Svalbard. And the Antarctica trip was eleven weeks. It’s quite long and quite a psychological experience, I would say, because you have 120 people around you for six weeks or twelve weeks. There are days when the ship is staying in the same place for two or three days to take measurement of something, and you’re looking around and you see nothing, but you just have to wait.
Lopeman: Do you ever go back to the same place twice?
Rießbeck: Sometimes. I’ve been six or seven times in Iceland and there are some places that I like to see every time I’m in iceland.
Lopeman: Is the ice melting? Have you seen changes? Because you know I’ve seen photos and I’ve read things, and we see these videos of these glaciers calving, and is that your impression? That it’s really dramatically accelerating?
Rießbeck: In Iceland you can see it, that the glaciers are going back, because they are marking it so you can see it. But it’s different in Antarctica. Scientists in Antarctica have told me that in some places it grows and in some places it goes back, because if it’s warming in Antarctica there will be more snow in some places.
Lopeman: There’s so much concern about climate change. What’s your feeling about it?
Rießbeck: I spoke with some Greenlanders about this and they don’t have a problem with the melting ice because they think that they can exploit their oil—some of them see it as very positive because they can’t access the oil until the ice melts. On the other side, the hunters in Greenland have their dog sleds and go hunting on the ice, but if there is no ice, they can’t go hunting.
Lopeman: What are they hunting?
Rießbeck: Seals. And when I was there in January, the coldest month in the year, there was not enough ice for them to use their dogsleds. I think it was the second or third year that they couldn’t use their dogs, and they have a big problem because they can’t get their meat and now they have to buy it.
Lopeman: And are they able to remember a time when that happened before?
Rießbeck: This is new. And in the south of Greenland they can now make honey, and that’s new.
Lopeman: Is there something educational about you wanting to paint these scenes?
Rießbeck: No. I like to make beautiful paintings. Maybe it’s educational to show them how beautiful this place can be, but in some ways they are self portraits. I can’t say I’m going to teach people about polar landscape.
Elizabeth Lopeman has written for Sculpture Magazine, American Craft Magazine, FiberArts, Bitch, Eugene Magazine, Drain Magazine.com, and various other magazines and websites. She currently lives and works in Munich.