Hans Richter, the early 20th century artist whose work is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is an ideal subject for the museum to examine in an exhibition. For LACMA, he's a two-fer.
First, the museum has a long-standing, well-deserved reputation for smartly delving into European developments in Modern art outside the much-studied School of Paris. Richter, born into a well-to-do Berlin family in 1888, worked primarily in Germany and Switzerland, before fleeing Hitler's horrors and arriving in the United States in 1941.
Second, he is primarily notable as a filmmaking pioneer. Although Richter made paintings, prints and sculptures — all represented in the galleries — the show features projected excerpts of about 60 films by Richter and other artists. It's part of LACMA's Art + Film initiative.
Especially in collaboration with Viking Eggeling, a slightly older Swedish artist, Richter recognized that film entailed a radical revision in the visual perception of time and space. As a vehicle for total abstraction, motion pictures had distinct potential.
Two other things distinguish "Hans Richter: Encounters," which continues through Sept. 2. One is hinted at in the title. The word "encounters" suggests social interaction. That means a lot for movies.
Films, unlike most Modern paintings, tend to be collaborative ventures. Half the work in the large exhibition is by other artists — those who influenced Richter and those with whom he worked. Among the 46 are Marcel Duchamp, El Lissitzky, Fernand Léger, Kazimir Malevich, Francis Picabia and Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
Films are also usually experienced together with other people, rather than as a solitary interaction. Being at a movie is somewhat akin to being in a museum: In both, it's possible to be surrounded by any number of fellow viewers while being profoundly alone with (and moved by) a work of art.
The rise of movie theaters and art museums a century ago reflected an accelerating transformation in society from agrarian to urban living. Being alone in public, as it were, was something relatively new in world history. Life wasn't like that down on the farm.
The other distinguishing factor for the development of Richter's art is the social stress and strain produced in the wake of that volatile transformation. The epic calamity of World War I cast a long, dark shadow.
Richter was drafted in 1914. In no time flat, he had been seriously wounded in trench warfare outside Vilnius, Lithuania, and returned to Berlin for lengthy recuperation at a military hospital. (He was 26.) One of his brothers was also wounded, another was killed. Across Europe, 40 million died.
The brutal wartime shredding of established society stands as an overwhelming negative force in opposition to the emergence of a collaborative art such as film. One tears down, the other builds up. Richter was a dabbler at painting, trying out Expressionism, Constructivism and Surrealism with varying degrees of success; with film, however, it's as if he determined that art could be most powerfully used as a method to rebuild human fellowship.
LACMA curator Timothy O. Benson opens the exhibition with portrait drawings and prints that evoke the artistic milieu in Berlin amid the gathering clouds of war.
Ludwig Meidner rendered poet Alfred Wolfenstein with agitated slashes of crayon. Oskar Kokoschka's bust-length portrait of playwright Walter Hasenclever shows a steady pair of immovable black eyes amid a virtual storm of blunt, thrashing marks on the lithographer's stone. A little Richter self-portrait in colored pencil seems stretched and pulled, as if the artist's face were being seen in the distorting reflection of a fun-house mirror.
The self-portrait anticipates a colorful trio of abstract paintings in the next room that he called "Visionary Portraits." They seek to evoke the sitter's inner life more closely than her outer features. Tellingly, Richter usually painted them at twilight, as the darkness of night began to close in.
There are also agonized Richter drawings inspired by what he witnessed in the war. One gouache shows a wild boar chewing on a human corpse. Another features a pig licking blood, which drips and puddles on the floor beneath oxen suspended from meat hooks. Typically, the black line describing the animals is jagged and coarse.
When Richter left Berlin for Zurich, his emerging pacifist social conscience solidified. He fell in with a group of antiwar Dada artists.
One of the most remarkable works in the exhibition hangs in the Dada section — a luminous, abstract embroidery in silk thread on linen by Dutch-born Adya van Rees. Called "Hourglass," its dense, angular shapes evoke an old-fashioned timekeeping device.
More compellingly, it embodies time slipping away through the visible accumulation of thousands of silvery, light-reflective stitches of thread. The work in a work of art is italicized.
For Richter, an exquisite object such as Van Rees' may well have had a special impact because of its vernacular materials. Embroidery is unconventional for established art but commonplace in daily life.
As commonplace, one might say, as movies were on their way to becoming.
The film clips are projected side-by-side with the show's 204 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and sculptures — 82 by Richter. The clips include totally abstract constructions that are the visual equivalent of musical compositions. Geometric shapes rise, fall, twirl, unfold and collapse, creating spatial warps.
There are also terrific representational bits. Among the best is an excerpt from "Entr'acte" (1924), the raucous Dada classic about a funeral procession that gets out of hand, by René Clair and Picabia.
It needs to be said, though, that there's a significant difference between the show's films, many shown in excerpted form, and the static art. Artistically, a clip is not complete the way a painting or drawing is. In the galleries, we get all of "Hourglass" but only part of "Entr'acte."
The complete running time of "Entr'acte" is 22 minutes. That creates a display problem, which wouldn't really be alleviated by showing all 60 films in their entirety. Two films at the end of the show, one by Richter plus a documentary about the artist, are screened complete. During three visits, I never encountered another soul in either viewing room.
Movies demand a time investment that is different in kind from paintings and other static art. The museum hasn't yet figured out how to resolve the exhibition issue. It's worth trying, though, and "Hans Richter: Encounters" gives it a good shot.
LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Sept. 2. Closed Wednesday. Adults: $15; http://www.lacma.org