Wednesday Art Idol

Gerhard Richter: the German master of abstraction reconciling memories of war
By Finn Blythe | Art | 25 August 2021

Betty, Gerhard Richter, 1988

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Like many German painters to have emerged after the Second World War, Gerhard Richter was fundamentally shaped by his formative years of a world in chaos. Along with his contemporaries  Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer, Richter would go on to become one of the country’s most important artists while maintaining a constant dialogue with his country’s turbulent 20th century history. 

Growing up in Dresden, in east Germany, Richter was exposed to scenes of carnage from an early age. Though he spent much of the war in neighbouring Waltersdorf, he witnessed from afar as his home was flattened in the bombing raids of February 1945 and, in 1951, as a student at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, he walked amid the rubble of old childhood streets on his way to class. There he joined the Academy’s mural painting department, which offered a more lenient interpretation of the Soviet-prescribed socialist realist model. This specialisation led to his first mural commissions after completing his studies, painting large-scale scenes of triumphant workers on the walls of the Socialist Unity Party headquarters. 

In the years that followed, Richter’s sense of confinement grew and the need to free his work from regressive GDR restrictions culminated in an epiphanous moment while at documenta in 1959, where he first encountered work by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana. By 1961, Richter and his wife had defected to Düsseldorf in West Germany, where the artist enrolled at the city’s prestigious Art Academy and came under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys. 

Coffin Bearers, Gerhard Richter, 1963

Here Richter first explored the relationship between photography and painting, using newspaper cuttings, advertisements and found images to produce works that adopted the visual shorthand of modern advertising to create what Richter termed ‘Capitalist Realism’. Working from photographs liberated Richter from the rules of traditional painting and formed the basis of a new style that he would use to question the limits of representation. By incorporating the world he had left behind and the one he had newly entered, his work allowed for a joint critique of Soviet socialist realism and western capitalism. 

In works such as Coffin Bearers (1962) and Woman with Umbrella (1964) for example, Richter conducted a Warholian-style investigation into the public’s morbid fascination with suffering and the media’s endless exploitation of it. Elsewhere, memories of war and death pervade his work, most notably with his 1965 painting Uncle Rudi, of his maternal uncle who’d served and died in the German army, and Aunt Marianne (1965), depicting another family member lost to the war, this time to the Nazi eugenics programme. In his initial explorations of landscape painting, Richter used aerial views of bombed out cities, signalling a move towards abstraction and investigations into colour that would culminate in his Colour Chart series as well as his minimalist studies in monochrome throughout the 70s. 

Alongside his American counterparts like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly, Richter became a leading exponent of abstraction. Beginning with bleak monochromes, the 80s saw an explosion of colour, patterns and textures that were used to explore perception, colour and light. Landscape painting became an established part of Richter’s oeuvre, with the artist taking inspiration from the sublime natural scenes used by Romanticism painters like Caspar David Friedrich.

Still, his work was largely influenced by events in Germany, and in the late 80s Richter produced a series of his signature photo paintings on the suspicious ‘suicides’ of three members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, named after the day they were found dead (October 18, 1977). Despite arriving some ten years after the event, the series invoked a strong reaction in Germany, where it laid bare the emotional conflict of a post-war generation struggling to come to terms with their parent’s acquiescence to the Nazi regime. Painted during the same year is Betty (top image), a work that diverges sharply from his series on the Baader-Meinhof Group and arguably remains one of Richter’s best-known works. Based on a photograph of the artist’s daughter taken ten years previously, the oil painting of a young girl turned away from the viewer (and towards one of Richter’s grey abstract canvases that forms the background) appears somewhat blurred, with smeared brush-strokes that echo the fading details of a distant dream.

October 18, 1977, Gerhard Richter, 1988

Cologne Cathedral Window, 2007

A globally renowned monument of Gothic architecture and German Catholicism, Cologne’s iconic double-spired cathedral became the site of one of Richter’s best-loved public commissions. During the Second World War, the cathedral’s southern window was destroyed by a bomb, and shortly after the turn of the millenium Richter was approached to finally replace what had been broken for the better part of half a century. 

Five years after the invitation, with Richter still struggling for a concept, the artist took inspiration from an earlier painting of his, 4096 Colours, created as part of his Colour Chart series during the 70s. His window design developed the same idea of a grid-like composition of vibrantly coloured tiles, this time made of 11,000 blown glass squares organised at random by a computer. 

The result is a contemporary interpretation of the stained glass window, with all the wondrous transcendence of Europe’s most venerated examples. Although the 72 colours were selected by Richter on the basis they matched those found in other medieval stained-glass windows, his commission is notable for its exclusion of any overt religious symbolism or figure. Instead, Richter opts for pure abstraction, and with it, an open invitation for quiet contemplation.

Cologne Cathedral Window, Gerhard Richter, 2007

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