Hans Richter studied at the fine arts academy in Berlin in 1908 and at the academy in Weimar in 1909. His first exposure to modern art came in 1912-1913, when he visited exhibitions by the Blaue Reiter group and the initial Autumn Salon (Herbstsalon) in 1913, during which he distributed the Futurist Manifesto published by Marinetti. Richter went on to align himself with the Munich Expressionist group which had formed around the periodical Die Aktion. He was wounded during World War I and arrived in Switzerland in 1916, where he joined the initial Dada group, attracted to them not least on account of their anti-military stance. His political commitment prompted him to participate in the establishment in Zurich of the Association of Revolutionary Artists (‘Association des Artistes Révolutionnaires’). In 1918, while Richter was still in Zurich, Tristan Tzara introduced him to the painter Viking Eggeling, whose conception of the way forward in painting Hans Richter discovered to be very much akin to his own. In 1919, Richter returned to Germany in the company of Eggeling and settled at his parents’ château in Klein-Kölzig.
He met Van Doesburg in 1920 and began contributing to the De Stijl periodical. In 1920 also, he was an active participant in the Juryfreie (‘Jury-Less’) group and, above all, the Novembergruppe, whose primary goal was the reconstruction of a defeated Germany in a ‘spirit of justice for all’ and the ‘unification of art and the people’. In 1922, Richter attended the so-called ‘Progressive Artists’ Congress’ in Düsseldorf, followed later that year by the ‘Constructivist Congress’ organised in Weimar by Theo van Doesburg. Between july 1923 and april 1926, Richter worked alongside Werner Graeff and Elizar (‘EL’) Lissitsky on the periodical ‘G’ (for ‘Gestaltung’, i.e., ‘Structure’) which was financed by the architect Mies van der Rohe and boasted regular contributions from the likes of Dadaists such as Tzara, Raoul Haussmann, Man Ray, Georg Gross, Kurt Schitters and Hans (Jean) Arp, together with representatives of the Neo-Plasticist movement, such as van Doesburg, and the Russian constructivists such as Lissitsky, Naum Gabo and Antonie Pevsner. The periodical was devoted above all to abstract cinema. Richter moved to New York in 1941 (certain biographers suggest he was by and large inactive as a painter during the period 1926-1940); he taught at City College in New York and served as principal of the New York Film Institute.
His early works purported to be ‘products of a vegetative manner’, doubtless because they drew on natural components which were subsequently ‘materialised’ by means of a process not unlike automatic writing. As such, they are somewhat reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky’s Expressionist or Fauve abstractions from around 1909-1910 and even the latter’s Autumn, although it was produced at a much later date (1917). Richter’s early work was in the German Expressionist mould and it comes as no surprise that Cézanne and the Cubo-Futurists also proved a strong influence, not least since Richter had met Marinetti in person when the Italian Futurist visited Berlin in 1913. Richter’s Violoncello of 1914 and his Orchestra of the following year have all the hallmarks of the dynamic Futurism typical of compositions by Francis Picabia in 1912-1913. As late as 1917, Richter was still producing works of an Expressionist nature, notably his Visionary Portraits, but during his Zurich period, he went back to basics. Together with Eggeling, he started to explore the potential extension of painting in terms of time and the development of abstract images in space. Thus, by 1917, he had already embarked on a series of black-and-white abstract compositions along the lines of the Zurich Dadaists (above all, Arp and Janko), culminating in his Dada Orchestra of 1918. The following year, Richter started painting his Rotulae and produced his first Prelude, a composition painted on a scroll and comprising a suite of 11 images which evolve and change over time. This would prove an important step in his research into spatio-kinetic art. In essence, the successive images express what Richter termed ‘the principle of continuity of a formal motif’, remarkably similar to Egyptian hieroglyphic scrolls or Japanese illustrated narrative scrolls (emakimono), except that the primary concern in Richter’s case was to transcribe ‘music’ into calligraphic form. For Richter and Eggeling, it was a small step from these scrolls to cinematographic experimentation, and Richter duly transcribed his scrolls to film in Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, both shown in Berlin in 1921 (the latter a scroll painted in oil and measuring 4m20cm long by 72cm wide), following in 1926 by Film Study. Like some of Eggeling’s work and Fernand Léger’s Mechanical Ballet, Rhythmus 21 was a landmark event in the history of cinema.
From 1928, Hans Richter produced a succession of experimental films. During this stage in his career he was undoubtedly in contact with leading figures in the Bauhaus. Later, within the framework of the Film Institute in New York, he cooperated in 1944 with Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Man Ray and Fernand Léger on a full-length film with the punning title Dreams That Money Can Buy, a work that will be remembered if for no other reason than because of its pioneering use of abstract colour sequences. Richter’s cinematographic experimentation continued with 8x8 of 1956-1957 and Dadascope of 1961, a collaboration involving himself, Arp, Duchamp, Hausmann, Richard Hülsenbeck and Kurt Schwitters. Richter had by this time started painting again and during and after World War 2, he produced compositions such as Counterpoint in Green and Red, further painted scrolls, and, in the early 1960s, paintings by palette knife. He also published studies on painting and cinema, including Film and Progress (1939-1940) and Dada Art and Anti-Art in 1964.
Hans Richter exhibited solo on a number of occasions, the most notable being in 1916 in Munich, when Die Aktion devoted an entire issue of his work. He would later exhibit solo in Paris and Basel in 1950; in Paris, at the Galerie des Deux Îles in 1952; at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1955; at the Denise René gallery in Paris is 1960 and 1965; variously in Basel, Washington, Zurich, Hanover, then in Rom, Florence, Madrid and Les Sables d’Olonne (1978) followed by a travelling retrospective organised in Berlin, Munich and Zurich in 1982.