With the death of Lucian Freud the unofficial title of the “world’s most important living painter” has passed, in the eyes of many, to Gerhard Richter. He has had a decent showing on these shores of late: in 2009 a substantial batch of his portraits was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and his colour chart paintings were displayed at the Serpentine in 2008. Richter turns 80 early next year and Tate Modern is using his birthday as an excuse for a full retrospective.
Richter has always been the most varied of artists, whose work encompasses both realism and abstraction, and also among the most disingenuous. “I believe in nothing,” he has said but, despite this disclaimer, many of his pictures suggest the opposite and reflect his distinctive history. Born in Dresden in 1932, several of his relatives were active National Socialists; he fled to West Germany shortly before the building of the Berlin Wall and was there throughout the Baader-Meinhof group’s activities. His country’s — and by extension his own — troubled past has been a recurring theme in his work.
It means there are two ways to approach Richter, either taking him at his word that political topicality “means almost nothing to me” and that his paintings are “devoid of content, significance or meaning, like objects or trees, animals, people or days”, or instead as an artist who has adapted painting to his changing times. The very fact that Nazism or Marxism or Islamist terrorism (he has painted 9/11 too) feature in his work suggests that, while he may indeed have no agenda, he believes that at the very least art itself does, and that it should engage with great events as well as small.
Richter builds a get-out clause into his art, claiming that “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures”. It is not, however, a view that is easily defensible and his own paintings are ripe for interpretation. Observation is itself a form of comment and strands of his paintings amount to a sort of political history.
The point of Richter though is less his subjects than his stylistic variety. Underlying much of his representational work is photography. Many of his portraits are paintings of photographs — family snapshots or images torn from magazines. The same is true of his series depicting candles or skulls, landscapes or buildings: by treating them at one remove he turns them into still-lifes. Rather than bland reproduction though he blurs the paint, subtly softening the focus in a signature version of sfumato. The effect can be unnerving, as if the subject instead of being still is in the first twitch of movement or that the air surrounding it has suddenly thickened so that the picture crackles and coalesces like radio interference.
This fascination with the picture surface is even more apparent in his abstracts. Unusually he has painted them since the 1960s, for as long as he has painted his more realist work, the two strands running concurrently. His interest is not in colour, since he has produced large numbers of works solely in grey, but in the artist’s mark itself. He has photographed a single brushstroke and expanded it to 20 feet long as well as painting sinuous lines where the colour changes as the eye follows each path.
It would be wrong though to see Richter as either an unduly technical artist or as an unreflective one. For all his diversity and interest in pattern-making the thing that inevitably defines his work is old-fashioned beauty.
One of Richter’s most evocative portraits is Reader of 1994, showing a simply-dressed girl intent on a magazine. It is a pared-down image that in its stillness recalls the work of Vermeer, who is the subject of a special exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge — Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. There are four of his paintings among the more than 30 Golden Age works on show and if this seems few it is worth remembering that it represents more than ten per cent of his known output (there are only 34 attested paintings in existence). Added to that the museum has somehow managed to borrow the Louvre’s wonderful The Lacemaker (1669-70), the first time this picture has been seen in Britain. It is an extraordinary coup.
The Vermeers are keeping good company too. There are fine paintings by some of the most distinguished of his peers — Jan Steen, Gerard Ter Borch and Pieter de Hooch among them — many of whom were in their time better known than Vermeer himself. The donor institutions include HM the Queen, the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum — this is a high-quality assembly in every sense.
The theme of the exhibition is not just women but the idealised image of domestic life of which they were the centre. These paintings show the home as an entirely feminine realm and the ideal Dutchwoman as an exquisitely competent and, most importantly, occupied châtelaine.
In this bourgeois Eden the women are busy even when they are doing nothing. Lassitude is an alien state and leisure is a positive activity — music-making, letter-reading, self-beautifying. There are of course less poetic tasks, the daily chores of cleaning and food preparation, but even here the likes of Nicolaes Maes and de Hooch give the women a meditative air. The fact that they are frequently framed in a doorway or window transforms them into glimpses caught by the returning burghers after a day at the bourse or on the quayside. As such they are also the antidote to male-dominated tavern scenes or the solemn confraternity gatherings captured by Frans Hals. But perhaps the most surprising thing about them is that seen together they seem to be painted almost with envy.