Private Collection, Germany
Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner circa 1998
Driven by an almost old-fashioned quest for beauty and truth in art, Richter’s paintings of women comprise arguably the most diverse and revealing chapter within the ongoing narrative of his oeuvre. Inconceivable outside of his wider artistic practice - and vice versa - Richter’s women afford an important link in the artist’s painterly chain of attempts to grasp the world, and a rich examination of contemporary society that is as diverse and colourful as life itself. Throughout his career, Gerhard Richter has painted pictures of women. Based on photographs drawn from a plethora of public and personal sources, Richter’s paintings of women reflect changing social climate in the Western world during the second half of the 20th century. The mother, the daughter, the housewife, the muse, the sex symbol – it is through his treatment of these almost stereotypical female types so engrained within the collective memory that Richter tackles our perception of art and how images function in society.
In a conscious continuation the heralded tradition of the female nude in Western art, Untitled fuses the traditional conventions of oil painting with a low art amateur erotic photo depicting a reclining nude. Exploring themes of pictorial convention and stylistic mutability in art, unlike the empathetic attributes conventionally associated with the portraiture, Untitled feeds on the distance between the artist and his subject. Here as in many of his other portraits, Richter adopts the role of artistic voyeur. This reflects his view that reality is too important and universal an experience to be epitomised by a single individual, and that nothing can substitute it.
The semi abstract aesthetic of Untitled is not only a poetic challenge to our eyes but also a challenge to our sense of history of what art is and can be. One of Richter’s most important works from 1967, Untitled sees the cumulative fusion of Richter’s figurative investigations in paint with the colourful abstraction of his later work. Richter’s black and white paintings of the early 1960s had witnessed a progressive advance towards compositional order and flawless execution, and here this here finds fresh expression through a vibrant array of vivid pastel tones. Painting in colour was still a very recent and radical departure for Richter, who in 1966 had just completed his first series of Farbtafel or ‘Colour Charts’. The present work was one of the first figure based paintings that followed, and there is tangible feeling here of creative excitement as Richter explores the integration of colour and form in a new and undiscovered way. Like the Colour Charts, the remarkable tonal diversity here can be seen as a forerunner to Richter’s Abstrakes Bild, as indeed the distinctive layering and enigmatic fusion of disparate colours. In a way that he had been denied in his black and white photopaintings, like Monet’s Morning on the Seine, Richter here balances the composition through colour. Bathed in translucent fields of aquamarine and crimson, the image is presented as if viewed through a lens or curtain. Richter thus transports us the viewer into the role of voyeur - a position which bears more than just coincidental similarities to the role of artist.
There is a great tension in the way in which the image is described by Richter; of the distance between the painting and its original source. Although similarly transformed by Richter’s brush, the black and white photopaintings of the early 60s kept a much closer bearing on the photograph than we see here. Richter himself has said that his pictures are meant to evoke the duality of faith and doubt, to keep alive the idea of the inconceivable, and there is a dynamic friction here between the kaleidoscope of Impressionistic, pastel hues energised by Richter’s masterful brushwork, and the sober realism of the image. “Richter goes radically to work in his obscuring of the subject. He has the woman mirrored in a wavy surface which turns her into an object of painting – and thus reminds us of the artist’s presence as the one who observes and reproduces. Despite the posture of the woman, this picture is among the non-eroticised works. The picture points rather in the direction of Richter’s interest in the curtain as a motif – the curtain which after all plays an important role in the history of art, precisely as the motif indicating that the painting can both reveal and conceal its origin.” (Mette Marcus, ‘Women of the times’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter, Image After Image, 2005, p. 29)
Across the picture plane there is a profound cohesion that emerges from the horizontal brushstrokes which simultaneously articulate and disrupt the image. Guiding the viewer’s gaze across the composition in fluid channels of brushwork, in spite of all Richter’s painterly abstraction, of all the energy and movement of the brushstrokes, there is a tremendous feeling of control and authority in the way in which the image has been presented. Subtly embedded within the fluidity of each sweeping pastel brushstroke, there is a feeling of time and a concurrent fragility of being. Like sand through fingers, the image seeps into our perception and grows in stature and complexity as our vision absorbs it. Presented on a life-size scale, the large format of Untitled gives us a fleeting, direct physical relationship to the subject which Richter actively takes back through his painterly intervention. Blurring and manipulating the amateur erotic source photo, Richter underlines the tension in art between image and reality and actually enhances our awareness of the inadequacy of the painted and photographic mediums to render experience.
Like Richter’s fluctuating and mercurial approach to style, the nature of his relationship to photography can often appear complicated. The ‘Age of Reproducibility’ in which we live is linked to the idea of loss of originality in art, and because of this, the use of photography in painting is often interpreted as being an intentional attack on the medium. However, Richter’s view of painting and photography as fundamentally the same - both a means of forming images of the world - undermines this. Although there is an obvious shift in materiality and information between the photographic sources and Richter’s paintings, he insists that even had not used photographs as the basis of his paintings, they would still have looked the way they do because photography is not just a technique or system, but the modern way of seeing. The absence of formal composition in amateur photographs in particular appealed to Richter’s desire to get beyond painterly style and related academic virtues. Although one of the defining characteristic of Richter’s photobased portraits is their contact with the viewer – the prime virtue of the amateur photo – there is an opposing and directly proportional feeling here in Untitled of loneliness and separation from the viewer.
Central to understanding Richter’s work is an understating of his upbringing in Communist East Germany – the GDR. As a young man he was trained in the art of stage painting and advertising billboards; a reality and art whose purpose was to serve the state in its presentation of a quite specific reality. This type of monumental painting instilled in Richter an awareness of art as an extension of social and political concern, and more importantly, the need to make his paintings immediately striking and legible from a distance. This involved painting in a slightly blurred, quasi-impressionistic manner in which the imagery when viewed from up-close dismantles into a matrix of semi abstract marks. The totalitarian ideology of Richter’s upbringing finds expression in his art in several ways: through his fundamental rejection of any kind of all-embracing concept or style and in the impression that reality is far too threatening to be ingested in a pure, unadulterated form. Vaccinated for life against all encompassing, lifestyle movements through the burden of his Nazi upbringing, Richter never tires of outlining the inequities and dangers of stringent ideology, and it is in this light that we should see his stylistic diversity. Rather than a problematic indication of restlessness, Richter’s oscillating style it is a statement of personal freedom and artistic ‘free-from’ which goes right to the roots of twentieth century thinking about art and style.
Through its very diversity, Richter’s oeuvre illustrates that: “The only thing art is not is style. Style is violence, style is the reduction of reality, style is overlooking all the things whose existence is justified by their very existence…. It is therefore wrong to say that Richter paints in all sorts of styles – even though it looks that way. His endeavour is different – it is to approach the world on different scales. Reflected in this mirror, Richter’s whole oeuvre emerges as a unity. The figurative and the abstract are not opposites; it is only a matter of scale, of distance from the life – ours- that can only be rendered visible with the aid of models, analogies, narratives and images, which must in turn be constantly doubted. Every answer, every judgement, every statement, every work of art thus becomes a question of how close one has to put oneself to what one regards as reality…..Richter reminds us, with his art, of what we often feel, without being able to put word or images to it; that it is as if we are always either too close or too far away.” (Paul Erik Tøjner in Exhibition Catalogue, Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter, Image After Image, 2005, p. 5)
Richter’s work provides important insight to our perception and understanding of art. Through the seductive ambiguity of the image and its execution, Richter here presents a realization of the world that exists at the edge of reality – a reality in which we are awakened to the naïve power ascribed to images. Whether examined in isolation or within the diverse pantheon of Richter’s oeuvre, Untitled is without doubt one of his most significant and revealing masterpieces. By blurring the boundaries between figurative and abstract, presenting them side by side in a single image, Richter shows these conventionally opposing modes of expression not to be opposites but more a matter of scale; of distance from life and from the subject. Providing a material condensation of the artist’s diverse painterly ambitions, here Richter displays the complexity and poetic elegance of his distinctive visual philosophy. Through a display of the painterly sublime to rival the most delicate and subtle of his photo-paintings, Richter transcends the low art origin of the source photo and elevates the subject to within the grand pantheon of Western visual history. In doing so, Richter examines the artificiality of painting and imagery to question the function of images in our society and what role there is, if any, for art.
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