Sunday, 22 April 2012

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern. We saw this exhibition in December but it has taken me all this time to get this post done. The photographs of the abstracts are my own and the rest I photographed from the book that accompanied the exhibition.

Photopainting in the 1960s

Table 1962.

The image  of a table that Richter found in a magazine that typified design and consumerism, images he encountered in the West after leaving East Germany. He partially obscured the photograph with solvent by dragging a dry brush across the surface. He called this practice 'capitalist realism',  hang his paintings in a department store and appeared as a living sculpture alongside them.

The almost complete obliteration of the image of the designer table by a brustroke is an early indication of his preoccupation with the polarity between abstract and image-based painting that has followed him throughout his life as an artist.

Richter left East Germany in 1961 and relocated in the West. This relocation allowed him to paint 'the way it suits me'  but also made him address the existential experience of having nowhere where it felt like home, and led to the ambivalent tone in his art.

By leaving the East, Richter left all of his friends and family behind - in fact he was never to see his parents again. All the paintings he made of his family are based on photographs.

Aunt Marianne, 1965.

His aunt Marianne, holding him as a baby. She suffered from mental illness and was sterilised and killed by the Nazis as part of their eugenics programme. The blur that occurs in portions of the painting can be seen to join the two bodies together.

"I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant".

‘Two Couples’ (1966)

Two couples, 1966  (oil on canvas)

"I blur so that all parts move slightly into one another":  it is an effort to connect figures internally and by extention to connect with them from the outside both on the part of the artist and by extension, the viewer.
"A painted picture has more reality than a photograph because a picture itself has more of a character of an object, because it is visibly painted by hand, materially produced in tangible ways".

Grey streaks, 1968 (oil on canvas)

Townscape Paris, 1968 (oil on canvas)

He produced around fifty Townscape paintings made from either birds-eye-view photographs of architectural models or from aerial photographs of actual cities. All the paintings were made with broad strokes in grey tones with no attempt to capture detail. They represent post-war architecture as sterile and inhospitable.  The paintings call to mind the bombing of cities during the war. In 1991 Richter said: "When I look back to the Townscapes now, they do seem to me to recall certain images of the destruction of Dresden during the war".

The paradox is that Richter made the Townscapes in order to document the rebuilding of cities after the war and to celebrate this, but completely overturned this purpose.

Moonscape II, 1968, (oil on canvas)

The Middle Period

‘Betty’ (1997)
Betty 1997 (Oil on wood, 12 by 15 inches)

Betty's face is tipped horizontal, as if resting on the floor.

Betty, 1988

In 1988 Richter returned to a photograph from the sixties to create this portrait of his daughter Betty. She is looking away from the viewer towards one of her father's Grey paintings, and Richter uses the Romantic trope of the figure turning away from the viewer to draw us into the work, frustrating our desire to see the subject's face.

Flowers, 1977 (oil on canvas)

Gerhard Richter's Candle (1982)

Candle, 1982, (oil on canvas)

The candle and skull paintings, his first attempt at still life. He later said about them: "when making them I experienced feelings to do with contemplation, remembering, silence and death".


In the late 1980s Richter began to collect images of the Baader-Meinhof group which he used as the basis for a number of paintings.  While he did not express sympathy for the group's politics, he spoke about his sorrow for their fates, and the fact that their ideologies had led to their deaths. With these paintings he demonstrated that older conventions of history painting were no longer viable: rather than a linear narrative or a single canvas showing a decisive event, he presents a series of fragmented images with no fixed sequence.

These are enigmatic modern history paintings, which avoid a moral stance.

Confrontation 1, 1988  (oil on canvas)

Confrontation 2, 1988  (oil on canvas)

Confrontation 3  (oil on canvas)

Dead, 1988,  (oil on canvas)


Cell, 1988  (oil on canvas)

Man Shot Down 1, 1988   (oil on canvas)

Youth Portrait, 1988

Hanged, 1988  (oil on canvas)

Arrest 1, 1988  (oil on canvas)

"Ever since I have been able to think, I have known that every rule and opinion - insofar as either is ideologically motivated - is false, a hindrance, a menace, a crime".

Genre Paintings

Flowers, 1991 (oil on canvas)

The strange angles and unconventional cropping represent a departure from the traditions of flower painting.

Tulips, 1995 (oil on canvas)

Demo 1997, (oil on canvas)

17 Nov. 99, 1999, (oil on photograph)

16 Nov. 99, 1999, (oil on photograph)

Abstraction in the 1990s

The abstract paintings comprise two thirds of his work. He sometimes talks about these paintings as the outcome of a destructive process, since he makes a series of brutal erasures rather than planning out each painting from the beginning. He increasingly used the squeegee, where he would use broad strokes made with a decorator's brush and then would wipe out areas of pigment with a squeegee.

All these abstracts have an almost three-dimentional depth to them which is unfortunately totally lost in the photographs.


The Cage paintings were completed in 2006 and first exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Like his earlier squeegee abstractions, they are the outcome of several layers of painting and erasure.

Their surfaces are animated by lines where the squeegee has paused, by brushstrokes, other scrapings, and areas where the skin of oil paint has dried and rippled.

Richter was listening to the music of John Cage while he worked on these paintings and titled them after the composer.

He has long been interested in Cage's ideas about ambient sound and silence, and has approvingly quoted his statement  'I have nothing to say and I am saying it'.

11 Panes, 2003, (glass and wood construction)

His preoccupation with glass and reflection is expressed in the glass/mirror constructions. Glass is usually associated with clarity and transparency, but Richter uses it as a source of uncertainty and unpredictable visual effects. In 11 Panes the viewer's image is repeated and reflected so many times that it is rendered indistinct - not very different to the blurred paintings in fact.

This was one of the most overwhelming exhibitions I have been to and left me awed. The variety is incredible: from the distinctive photo-paintings with their blur, to the grey paintings, "like photographs of nothing", to the life-affirming abstracts that express sheer love of life and light and the world. And of course, the so distinctive blur, where the image is brushed across and dissolves into something distanced, that cannot be grasped, lost to the past or beyond us.



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