Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Artchronika, No. 10, December 2011
It has been two decades since the Tate Gallery hosted Richter’s first UK retrospective, in 1979. At the time Nicholas Serota – now Director of the museum group – curated it. Today he shares the task with the British academic Mark Godfrey, author of Abstraction and the Holocaust. The result is a significant overview of the career of this eighty year old artist who, in 1961, left East Germany for Dusseldorf and subsequently established himself as one of the most important artists of his generation. The exhibition highlights the willful stylistic heterogeneity of Richter’s oeuvre and the intellectual continuity that runs throughout its various facets, showcasing his role as painter of history, still lives, portraits, landscapes, genre and gestural abstract works.

In staging this well balanced survey of Richter’s varied output the curators have successfully conveyed the intensity of the artist’s gaze, the rigor of his methods and – somewhat counter-intuitively, given these points – his sensuality. With his abstract and figurative pieces hanging together it becomes possible to see how the latter is entwined with the former and vice versa – the monumental squeegee abstracts, colourful and many layered, give a new sense to his grey figurative images. Indeed, surprisingly, they seem to illuminate the artist’s pleasure in dragging dry brushes across otherwise banal images, bending and smudging boundaries. Conversely, the geological application of riotous colours in his abstract works – flickering between obliteration and reapplication only to be scraped away and put back again – is a meditation on the possibility of meaningful depth not unconnected to the questions of memory most associated with his historical works. For Richter, we come to understand, the smear is both generation and oblivion; a paradoxical itch that no amount of scratching abates – hence his prolific output.

Beyond the unlikely pleasure principle in Richter’s practice the exhibition also conveys his intellectual and moral depth. This begins with his eye, which explores the mimetic and commemorative functions of surface in a forensic manner. The photographs that are used as the starting point for many of his paintings seem deployed as evidence. But of what?–Life as it is? As it was? In either case death looms large and it seems he is trying to suggest that the act of representation assassinates the subject. With Uncle Rudi and Aunt Marianne (1965) we encounter dead family members depicted as living – his uncle wears a Wehrmacht uniform while posing innocently in front of a wall and, we learn from a wall text, his aunt was forcibly sterilized and ultimately killed by the Nazis. Likewise, in his fifteen-part Baader-Meinhof cycle, October 18 1977 (1988), we encounter the corpses of ill-fated terrorist revolutionaries. After this meditation on morbid documentary photography and familial trauma – both personal and national – through paint another room is filled with his Halifax series (1978). This is comprised of 128 greyscale photographs of what must have been colourful impasto paint, laid out in a modernist grid that harks back to the proto-eugenic typologies of Francis Galton. The visual content of these photographs is unusually reminiscent of wounds in medical textbooks, where irredeemably organic features are flattened by the combination of lens and industrial printing to better serve cold analysis. With such assured conceptual obliques at his disposal Richter’s later uptake of the vanitas genre – painting a skull and a candle – seems somewhat unecessary.

Concern with zooming in and out to emphasize concurrent oscilation between gaining and losing human detail is another of Richter’s key devices. In paintings and photographs of cities – including Dresden – that suffered bombing during World War Two erasure is associated with distance. In reflecting upon this point, and thus highlighting the – previously – unpalatable concern for his generation’s suffering during the period, the artist presaged W.G Sebald’s searching and important book on the same subject – On the Natural History of Destruction – by four decades. Likewise, his Uncle Rudi – locating a historical moral smear at the central of his own personal life – performed the type of confessional catharsis that Gunter Grass would later explore in Peeling the Onion – in which the author admitted being a former member of the Hitler Jugend. Thusly, Richter’s painted images with their blurs, and his precise reduction of peopled cities to mere topography through aerial photography, offer a cold and unflinching look at what was a heated but unacknowledged region of post-war German identity; a comment on the distancing mechanisms at work in the national psyche.

Panorama demonstrates variety and strength in depth. At no point in this retrospective does one suspect that his Richter flits from style to style for lack of reason or to satisfy any bogus sub-modernist desire for novelty. The threads that run throughout the show repay sustained attention.