The age of digital precision and conceptual art raises questions not only of how and what to paint, but why to paint at all. Yet for more than 50 years, the German artist Gerhard Richter has proven his remarkable skill in commanding almost every style and genre of painting. Both a figurative and abstract artist, Richter has produced paintings that encompass realism based on photographs and magazine cuttings, large-scale abstracts produced by dragging layers of paint across the canvas, romantic landscapes, over-painted photographs, glass sculptural works and most recently experiments in digital printing. He is one of the most significant forces in keeping painting alive in contemporary art.
In the credits of his striking new film, Never Look Away, the writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (best known to English-speaking audiences for his previous work, The Lives of Others, on Stasi surveillance in the former East Germany) gives thanks to Richter, now 87. The film follows the career of a fictional artist, Kurt Barnert but the parallels with Richter’s life are unmistakable. (Richter initially collaborated with the script but has since disavowed the film.) Yet it beautifully conveys the healing power of Richter’s art—and the paintings featured in the film are by Andreas Schön, a former assistant of Richter’s.
Born in 1932, Richter lived through the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War and the communist occupation of the eastern zone of Germany. He entered the art academy of Dresden in 1951 at the age of 19. As an East German art student his was the world of Socialist Realism, “I was only allowed to draw,” he wrote later, “I was not allowed to paint.” He stood out as a superb draughtsman with forensic skills of observation. In 1961, before the Wall went up, he defected to the West.
A family photograph album was one of the few items Richter took with him when he fled Dresden. Some of these family snapshots provided the basis for early photo-paintings whose muted blue, brown and grey tones resemble historical photographs: random snapshots of strangers with suitably innocuous titles—Mother and Child, Family at the Seaside. But as he became more famous, he began to reveal the biographical truths hidden in his work.
He has put together a vast inventory of visual images, Atlas, which is an ever-expanding compendium of thousands of news photos, snapshots, postcards and drawings. Atlas is his archive from which a photograph is projected onto the canvas; he traces it with a piece of charcoal and a ruler, each minute detail of the photograph is transcribed, after which he is ready to paint. While the pigment is still wet, he drags over the paint with a dry brush or sponge, blurring the outlines.
One of Richter’s earliest photo paintings is a tender black and white portrait of a teenage girl holding a baby which was first exhibited in 1965 with the unremarkable title, Mother and Child (above).
Later he renamed the painting Tante (Aunt) Marianne, and over time it emerged that the woman it depicted was his mother’s younger sister, Marianne Schoenfelder, and the baby was Richter himself aged four months. Marianne was a sensitive, beautiful girl who, by the time she was 20, had been institutionalized on an alleged diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Mental illness was a death sentence in Nazi Germany. Women like Marianne were subjected to forced sterilisation and in 1940 the government established a medical extermination programme with six execution centres equipped with gas-filled showers to murder them; a dress rehearsal for the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Marianne, however, was starved to death in 1945 and buried in a mass grave. The painting, which is alluded to in the film, is a glimpse of a moment of happiness, seen through a black chasm of history. On Richter’s website (gerhard-richter.com), where his works are categorised according to subjects such as Aeroplanes, Alpine, Candles, Clouds, and Families, Aunt Marianne comes under the heading of Death.
When Richter painted the picture, though he knew Marianne’s fate was terrible, he did not know the full details. The final twist emerged 14 years ago, dug up by an investigative author, Jurgen Schreiber, who wrote a biography of Richter in 2005. It seems that the father of Richter’s first wife, Heinrich Eufinger, was the doctor responsible for the sterilisation and euthanasia of the mentally ill—a plot twist reflected in Donnersmarck’s film.
Richter’s paintings are full of psychological tension. In 1964 Richter painted a black and white “photo” titled Woman with Umbrella (above). In one hand she carries an umbrella, with the other she covers her mouth. This “woman” is in fact Jackie Kennedy at the very moment she realises her husband, JFK, has died. By using feathery brushstrokes to blur the original image, Richter takes an instance of abject tragedy, or what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment of the photograph, and creates ambiguity and mystery. The innocuous, anonymous title itself blurs our understanding of what we see: could it not be any woman? Is it grief or is it astonishment?
Richter’s blurred subjects are like ghostly traces. They conjure up the famous line from the 1960s television programme: “You are now entering the Twilight Zone.” Richter’s zone is one between reality and interpretation: the happy mother and child versus the aunt starved to death by the Nazis and her four-month-old nephew. Nothing is quite what it seems—what effect does this have on our understanding of the event portrayed?
At 8:45 am on Tuesday, September 11, 2001—a bright, cloudless morning—a hijacked commercial airliner hit the north tower of New York City’s World Trade Centre, causing destruction on a scale unprecedented on American soil. At 9.03am, a second plane hit the south tower. The magnitude of these events unfolded live in front of a stunned world. On that morning, Richter was en route to New York for the opening of a solo exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery. With the airspace over the city immediately shut down, Richter’s plane was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he had no choice but, like everyone else, to wait and to watch. Two days later, on September 13, he returned home to Cologne.
Four years later, in 2005, Richter painted a small canvas (above)depicting a horizontal blur colliding with two vertical thrusts against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It is an immersion in colour based on horror: its title is September. The painting features Richter’s characteristic blurring techniques to convey an almost abstract commemoration of an indelible moment in history. He depicts disintegration at the very moment when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, but it is done in such a way as to lend the horror a calm beauty. The abstract blurring becomes a place of refuge from the reality which was transmitted around the world. He takes a photographic portrayal of an event and quite literally rubs it better, like a mother soothing a bump on a child’s knee. Does he wipe away traces of emotion and memory or does he give us a chance to step out of mass produced photographic images into something so compelling precisely because it is blurred, imprecise and beyond our reach?
On the second floor of Tate Modern a large gallery is devoted to six huge abstract canvases by Richter. The works are known collectively as Cage, named after the American minimalist composer John Cage, whom Richter greatly admired and to whose music the artist listened to during the period he was making the paintings in 2006. They are produced by a process of smearing the thickly applied paint, which Richter calls “mechanical sweeping”, using handmade squeegee tools several metres wide. It is a technique that allows, as with much of his work, some scope for chance. These are not based on photographs. They start out as hard-edged geometrical forms and end up as shimmering surfaces that still look as if they might be images of something else. These are contemplative, immersive works, which despite their abstraction haunt us into looking for something behind the blur, a mirage hiding something real.
“I steer clear of definitions,” Richter once wrote, “I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.” His art is effective and evocative on so many levels precisely because he likes uncertainty, ambivalence and mystery. In this age of instant digital reproducibility, his works interrogate how images that seemingly portray truths—real stuff—can be wholly untrustworthy and unstable, giving painting a powerful role in the 21st century as a medium for confronting the images of