Hans Richter in Exile: Translating the Avant-Garde

Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)


A large number of European abstract films premiered in the United States in a 1940 festival at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The program featured, along with the work of Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Marcel Duchamp, one of the earliest abstract films, Hans Richter’s 1921 study, Rhythmus 21. At the time, Richter was head of film production at the Frobenius Film Studios in Basel, Switzerland. But Swiss officials had just announced their intention to deport him back to Germany. Richter, one step ahead of the Swiss, had filed with the U.S. consulate for immigration papers, and was awaiting his official documents. MoMA’s screening therefore provided a timely introduction of the artist’s work into the New York art scene. Less than a year later, in 1941, Richter immigrated to the United States and took up residence in Manhattan where he would continue to reside on a part-time basis until his death in 1976. Although identified as a German artist, for the past quarter of a century before he arrived in the United States, Richter had a peripatetic lifestyle and he counted Zurich, Munich, Berlin, Moscow, Eindhoven, Basel, and Paris, amongst other cities, as his residences. Thus, to varying degrees, one might be tempted to conclude that most of Richter’s life was spent in exile. However, the term exile, as Hamid Naficy reminds us, is traditionally taken to mean “banishment for a particular offense, with a prohibition to return,”1 and many of Richter’s earlier departures were voluntary and he always returned to Germany.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 11.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Cleve Gray, ed., Hans Richter by Hans Richter (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 48.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, Universelle Sprache (Fort in der Lausitz: Eigenverlag, 1920)Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    For an insightful discussion of the theoretical and serial implications of Richter’s work, see Brian O’Doherty, Hans Richter (New York: Byron Gallery, 1968).Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Hans Richter, The Struggle for the Film: Towards a Socially Responsible Cinema, trans. Ben Brewster, ed. Jürgen Römhild (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 24.Google Scholar
  6. 19.
    See Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes,” Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (New York: Verso, 1982), 92–104.Google Scholar
  7. 20.
    For a discussion of this community, see Martica Sawin, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 176.Google Scholar
  8. 22.
    For a historical overview of the film, see Stephanie Casal and Pia Lanziger, “Dreams That Money Can Buy,” Hans Richter: Malerei und Film, ed. Hilmar Hoffman and Walter Schobert (Frankfurt A. M.: Pippert & Koch, 1989), 104–111.Google Scholar
  9. 31.
    Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, trans. Joachim Neugroschel, ed. Hans J. Kleinschmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 109.Google Scholar
  10. 34.
    See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  11. 36.
    Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (New York: Routledge, 2000), 372.Google Scholar
  12. 37.
    “The fact is that there are at least two film forms besides the fictional film that, less spectacular than Hollywood, are more cinematographic in the proper sense of the word,” the documentary form and the experimental or art film (Hans Richter, “The Film as an Original Art Form,” Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney [New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970], 17).Google Scholar
  13. 38.
    For an overview of these films, see Richard M. Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1992)Google Scholar
  14. 40.
    Michel-Rolph Trouillet, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 27.Google Scholar
  15. 42.
    As Azade Seyhan astutely observes, “Writers of diasporas often employ linguistic forms of loss or dislocation, such as fragments or elliptical recollections of ancestral languages, cross-lingual idioms, and mixed codes to create new definitions of community and community memory in exile” (Azade Seyhan, Writing Outside the Nation [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001], 17).Google Scholar
  16. 44.
    Hans Richter, “Der Filmessay: Eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms,” Schreiben Bilder Sprechen: Texte zum essayistischen Film, ed. Christa Blümlinger and Constantin Wulff (Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1992), 195–198.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Sabine Eckmann and Lutz Koepnick 2007

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations