NEW YORK - Gerhard Richter describes the momentous arrival of photography into his practice with characteristic understatement. In 1962, the young refugee from East Germany was making an abstract painting informed by Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. “One day a photograph of Brigitte Bardot fell into my hands, and I painted it into one of these pictures in shades of grey,” he recalled in an interview in 1964. “I had had enough of bloody painting, and painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do.”
Gerhard Richter. Courtesy of BPK | Angelika Platen.
That painting has not survived, but it began a body of work, which grows increasingly fascinating. Richter had only recently arrived in Düsseldorf from his native Dresden, leaving just before the construction of the Berlin wall in August 1961. In East Germany, he had been a successful socialist realist mural painter but he had witnessed a more exciting alternative to state-sponsored art: in 1959 he visited Documenta in Kassel and was struck by the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana.
“I might almost say that those paintings were the real reason why I left the GDR,” he said in 1986.
Intriguingly, only months after gaining the freedom to paint like Pollock and Fontana, when he was studying at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, he had become disillusioned. Photographs offered the solution. At the time, Richter said that “the first impulse towards painting … stems from the need to communicate, the effort to fix one’s vision, to deal with appearances.” But he rejected working directly from life, because he mistrusted “the picture of reality conveyed to us byour senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed,” he said. “If I draw an object from nature, I start to stylise and to change it in accordance with my personal vision and my training. But if I paint from a photograph, I can forget all the criteria that I get from these sources. I can paint against my will, as it were.” Photographs represented a superior representation of the reality he sought to address. Famously, he declared: “The photograph is the most perfect picture.”
For the next few years, Richter drew on found sources, usually news or consumer magazines, and his own family photographs to create disparate images, from domestic items like chairs and a toilet roll to images of war, and from glamorous celebrities to family groups and portraits. “Do you know what was great?” he said in that period. “Finding out that a stupid, ridiculous thing like copying a postcard could lead to a picture. And then the freedom to paint what you felt like. Stags, aircraft, secretaries. Not having to invent anything any more, forgetting everything you meant by painting – colour, composition, space – and all the things you previously knew and thought.”
From 1963, he developed a crucial formal element – his trademark “blur.” This perfectly illustrated his view of reality, defined by “imprecision, transience [and] incompleteness.” He said he blurred the images “to make everything equally important and equally unimportant.” The technique would be used in varying ways, sometimes to soften an image, at others to violently distort it. Among its most dramatic uses is in the work prompted by a commission from the Siemens Corporation to make a painting for its Milan offices. The source image for Domplatz, Mailand, 1968, the monumental painting that resulted, is lost, but the subject – the main square in Milan, with the city’s spectacular Gothic cathedral on the right and the Galleria shopping arcade on the left – has been photographed countless times. A comparison of the final painting with a more recent photo of a similar view vividly demonstrates the seemingly simple, yet profound, transformation that Richter achieved through the blurring process, one Robert Storr describes as being “made up of complex patterns of repetitive strokes, which, fitted together, give off a destabilizing shimmer.”
The original source photo for Domplatz, Mailand is lost, but a similar view (left) and the painting (right) reveals the profound transformation achieved through the blurring process. This large-scale work will be offered in the this May.
Allied to his use of images from the mass media, this cool, distanced approach inevitably linked Richter to Pop art and one of its chief inspirations, Marcel Duchamp. Richter wrote approvingly of Duchamp’s innovation of the readymade as “the invention of reality,” that crucial aspect in his work. His admiration for American Pop art was couched in Duchampian terms – he admired Roy Lichtenstein’s perfectionism, which he had witnessed at Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery in Paris in spring 1963, because it was “antiartistic … It was opposed to ‘peinture.’” In other words, Lichtenstein and others broke definitively with a tradition going back to Cézanne and beyond. “That’s why I painted photos,” Richter said, “just so that I would have nothing to do with peinture: it stands in the way of all expression that is appropriate to our times.”
His work had clear differences to American Pop – rather than being celebrated, the mass media is treated with indifference, particularly when Richter paints celebrities like Bardot or Jackie Kennedy with startlingly different effects to Andy Warhol’s equivalents. And yet Richter identified enough with the Americans to describe a show he put on in May 1963 as the “first exhibition of German Pop Art.” Richter’s collaborators on that show were his friends and kindred spirits at the Kunstakademie, Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg and Sigmar Polke, and Richter coined the term Capitalist Realism, a knowing spin on Socialist Realism, in connection with the exhibition. Later that year, together with Lueg, he put on an exhibition-cum-performance, “Living With Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism,” at a furniture store in Düsseldorf. Throughout the 1960s, Richter would experiment, collaborate and show with Kuttner, Polke and Lueg, who would later change his name back to Fischer and become a leading gallerist, as well as Blinky Palermo, another conceptually minded Düsseldorf painter. Their burgeoning group would feature in surveys of German art, but the scene was treated with suspicion by important artists emerging elsewhere in Germany. “You have betrayed your fatherland,” the painter Georg Baselitz told him, which Richter believed was triggered by him “giving in to the international style” of Pop art.
Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo and Gerhard Richter in front of Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Cologne 1967.
Baselitz was the figurehead for a particular German tradition, which dealt viscerally, expressionistically with the legacy of National Socialism. In that turbulent early 1960s era, Richter admitted that he and his artist friends “refused to take anything seriously” and the audience for the works reacted in kind. And yet, with hindsight, far from shirking the legacy of Nazism and war, Richter’s photo paintings grapple with it abundantly, and indeed with daily life in Germany in its aftermath. There are several images of warplanes, and Richter acknowledges that the group of townscapes he painted after 1968 clearly relate to photographs of the destruction of Dresden during the war. Even more poignantly, two 1965 paintings speak of the personal involvement of Richter’s family in the war: Uncle Rudi, chillingly sprightly in his Nazi uniform; and Aunt Marianne as a child playing with an infant Gerhard – she was schizophrenic and murdered in the Nazis’ “euthanisia” programme. In a painting made after a press photograph, Richter also pictures the doctor who established the programme for such exterminations.
Richter accepts that his deliberately expressed indifference obscured his engagement with important themes. “My own statements about my lack of style and lack of opinion were largely polemical gestures against contemporary trends that I disliked, or else they were self-protective statements,” he said. “Of course I did care about the motifs … the families – they were often people I knew. And if I didn’t know them at least they had something in common with the families and lives that I did know.” Indeed, the more the photo paintings are analysed, the more Richter’s role seems active, emotionally invested, just as he is in the tender and beautiful paintings of his loved ones made in recent decades.
“Transposing the frozen action of the photograph into the enduring but temporally ambiguous realm of painting,” wrote Robert Storr, “Richter fastened on the emblems and ephemera of postwar life and distilled their often bitter essence in tonal pictures whose poetry is a combination of matter-of-fact watchfulness and unrelieved uncertainty.” That this, his earliest acknowledged body of work continues to unravel and fascinate viewers today, reinforcing Richter’s position as one of the greatest painters of our age.
Ben Luke is a regular contributor to several arts publications and is contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard.
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