Gerhard Richter – a watcher of our time

A solo exhibition of the work of artist Gerhard Richter is running in the Tate Modern in London before moving to the Pompadou in Paris and the Neue Nationagalerie in Berlin next year. It charts the evolving styles of an extraordinary artist.

Gerhard Richter’s work is often compelling. Not always easy to look at and often it is difficult to comprehend the intentions behind them.

Richter came from Dresden in east Germany where some of his first influences would have been German Romanticism and Realism but throughout his life, Richter has proved to be a man ever searching the new. His work encompasses so many different styles and periods and he does not erect rigid separations between one type of medium and another. Across his works there are connections and breaks: historical, pictorial, impressionistic, cultural, political and aesthetic.

Table 1962 is typical of Richter’s use of the flotsam and jetsam of his everyday life to create something new: printed items, words, illustrations, photographs – all seized upon by Richter and recycled into his pictures. This is the first painting Richter records in the catalogue system which was to become his record of output. Table is a picture copied from a magazine and covered with solvent, generating vitality to an otherwise static image.

Photographs adapted and altered to become paintings are mainly associated with Richter. His earlier works he destroyed but photographs enabled him to utilise images from previous times to create fresh interpretations.

Uncle Rudi of 1965 shows Gerhard’s uncle in his Wehrmacht uniform. Typically, Richter is presenting his experiences to us without obvious comment, it’s up to us to decide what to think about Rudi looking out from the picture. As for Richter himself, he appears to remain non-judgemental. His world with its connections and crossed lines – linking and dividing us.

Born in 1932 in the east German city of Dresden, Gerhard Richter’s father, a teacher, joined the Nazi Party rather than lose his job. Later he was conscripted into the army, captured and spent most of the war in an American POW camp. Around the same time, an uncle of mine was captured from a burning tank in North Africa and spent most of the war close to where the young Richter lived in the area surrounding Dresden.

Gerhard’s Uncle Rudi was killed in that war and it was twenty-one years later that Gerhard painted him in his Wehrmacht uniform; a member of his family who was a Nazi soldier. Another of the influences which were to shape the artist’s life.

Also exhibited is his picture of Aunt Marianne, painted also in 1965. Marianne was killed by the Nazis in 1945, through their eugenics programme.

Another painting, Gerhard produced at the same time is of Herr Heyde – a Nazi doctor involved in those eugenic killings.

Richter is twelve years old when his aunt is killed. That is the time he is given his first camera. Soon the boy is developing and printing his own photographs, incorporating them into his paintings. He records what he sees around him. His life. His home city: reduced to rubble, observed by my young uncle, when out from his internment camp, shocked by the sheer extent of destruction.

Many of Richter’s paintings form part of various groups of work rather than being individual: his associations, links, connections. By the later 1960s Richter was working on landscapes. Having grown up familiar with the work of the German Romantics – the dramatic grandeur of Caspar David Friedrich – Richter presents equally spectacular scenery but instead of enhancing it as Friedrich may have done to excite the viewer, Richter underplays his scenes.
Alps II from 1968 is such an example.

While a teenager, Gerhard Richter began attending night school to study painting. In time he got a job as a sign painter in Zittau, followed by a spell as an assistant scenery painter in the local theatre. Then, in 1951, he was finally accepted to study at the Kunstakademie in Dresden, learning about east German Social Realism. He was living under the Soviets in the eastern sector of Germany but on the eve of the Berlin Wall being erected in 1961, Gerhard and his wife travelled to the west where he was able to study under abstract artist, Karl Otto Götz in Dusseldorf.

Into the later ‘60s and ‘70s, Richter embarked on his series of grey monochrome painting, boldly depicted with brushes or rollers.

Grey Streaks is an example of such pieces.

It could be argued this painting sums up Richter’s own position on his works, they are whatever you want that to be;each person who studies, Grey Streaks, will conjure up their own very individual interpretations in response. As for Richter’s view? It’s not clear.

By sharp contrast Richter veered straight from his monochrome series into his Colour Charts . Similar to a paint chart you might pick up at B&Q when deciding vinyl paint for your sitting room. The influences here are western pop art and minimalism and the method is not the random form it appears.

Over 1000 shades of colour are precisely permuted then randomly placed within a grid which allows each to be repeated four times. Some might have come across a similar effect from Richter’s stunning window in Cologne Cathedral. He settled in Cologne in 1982.

By the early 1980s, Richter’s colours have sharpened with acid shades appearing. Yellow-Green is one of his series of strident abstracts.

Naturally, Richter did not linger long in this phase but moved into figurative pieces. His picture of his daughter Betty, was worked from a photograph.

Betty almost Ingres-like in the neo-classical pose and all the more astonishing emerging as it did at the same time as Richter’s compelling and disturbing series called 18 October 1977.

This is the date which commemorates the day when three of the Baader Meinhof group, Andreas Baadar, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, were found dead, of suicide it was said although not everyone believes the official account, following as they did the deaths in custody of Ulrike Meinhof and Holger Meins.

Richter carefully gathered pictorial records of the group members, their arrests, deaths and funerals. This material he transformed into his series of 18 October but disassembling the narrative of events from their chronology
and presenting only partial and semi-obscured images to the viewer.

Dead A close look reveals the dead man has his throat cut. The contrast with Betty’s picture, from the same period, is stark.

Richter grew up in a turbulent world of extremes; under the Nazis, under the Soviets, confusion and perhaps guilt. So he chose to stand back, to watch, to observe, to present and invite us to make up our own minds. He has done his bit. He doesn’t preach but his works come from his commitment to them.

Richter has experienced so much during his life that he does not offer easy responses to events, no simplistic doctrine which favours one belief over another, there are no such facile statements in his work. At the same time we know, or we think we know, just where Richter is coming from.

An aerial shots taken by an American pilot flying on a bombing campaign over Cologne during WWII forms the series 14 Feb.45 from 2002.

Such images may not look like much. Easy to walk straight by. But the impact of the action behind the image was catastrophic for the people of Richter’s adopted home city. An important aspect in the evolution of the artist.

Throughout his career, Gerhard Richter has been sensitive to the tensions, the contradictions and dilemmas which make up our lives. He has pushed himself to bring difficult questions of our time into the arena of the art gallery, to confront our comfortable assumptions. He is a great artist and an important one.

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