10 Jul 2012

Gerhard Richter: a timeless painter

Some (those who like sensational and meaningless headliner statements, I suppose) say that painting is dead as far as contemprary art is concerned. I recently went to see the very impressive exhibition of the German painter Gerhard Richter, currently on show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and would beg to differ. Richter himself has this to say on the subject: "Many people feel that other techniques are more seductive: you place a screen in a museum and nobody looks at paintings. But my business is painting. This has always been what has most interested me. I am now of a respectable age and I come from a different tradition. In any event, I don't know how to do anything else. Yet I am convinced that painting is one of the human being's most fundamental aptitudes, like dancing or singing, an activity that holds sense, that is part of us as human beings." 

1). Tiger (oil on canvas, 1965)

2). 180 colours (oil on canvas 1966)

3). Cage 6 (oil on canvas 2006)

4). Reader (oil on canvas 1994)

5). Abstract Painting (oil on photograph 1999?)

6). Aunt Marianne (oil on canvas 1965)

The few samples of Gerhard Richter's work shown above should suffice to illustrate the fact that Richter alternates between figurative works, produced from photographs found or taken by himself, to abstract ones that may be highly calculated or improvised. And sometimes the two tendancies collide, as in number 5.

7). Mustang squadron (oil on canvas 1964)

Richter is 80 years old this year, and was born in Dresden before the second World War. This troubled period marked him, as is shown in many paintings both of war events and of family members, such as the paintings number 6 or 7 in the series above. Number 6 is from a photograph of himself as a baby with his aunt Marianne, who, because of her mental handicap, was killed by the nazis under their eugenist programme. Richter has regularly worked on images of his own family, including wives and children, of which he says "because they are the ones that touch me most deeply". Gerhard Richter's use of photographs, taken by himself or chosen from archives or newspapers, is recurrent at various periods of his work. An example is shown in number 5 above where he has worked over a blown-up photographic image of Venise with oil paint that partially destructures the image whilst adding colours that seem very Venetian to me. This to and fro between figuration and abstraction, here coming together in a single painting, forms a constant dialogue throughout Richter's work and is in no way specific to a single period.

Ema (nude on staircase) (oil on canvas 1966)

His first wife, Ema, was the apparent subject for the above painting. But this also constitutes a dialogue at a distance with Marcel Duchamp and his 1912 painting called "Nu descendant un escalier" (see below). I will return to the topic of Richters visual dialogues with famous painters from the past a bit later, but it is clearly no accident that he chose Duchamp who, shortly after the work below was shown in New York, abandoned visual art to play chess.

Nu descendant un escalier (Marcel Ducamp 1912)

Richter considers his work from enlarged photographs, painted in a traditional way using oil paint on canvas, with the images usually rendered soft and unfocused by various techniques with wet paint, to be his abstract work, and he says that his abstract series form his "concrete" work. I find this apparent paradox interesting and indeed it obtains when you look closely at the powerfully physical presence and performance of many of his abstract paintings, with the successive layers of wiped-over paint, such as number 3 above, which was done listening to music by John Cage, hence the title. And it so happens that Cage produced what is sometimes known as "concrete music". The painting is indeed musical in its tonalities, and also reminds me of the (almost abstract) late water-lily paintings by Monet. But this is also because Richter's figurative images, partially becase of their blurred focus, have a timeless, quintessential quality that makes them seem distant; in any case they appear to hover and float, more alluding to reality as we perceive it rather than attempting to describe it precisely. The images 1 and 4 above may give you some idea of what I mean.

Portrait of youth (oil on canvas 1988)

The above "Portrait of Youth", although produced, once again, from a photograph, made me think immediatly of some of Titian's portraits. And indeed, Richter did do a series of works based on Titian's Annunciation, for which he used a postcard of the orginal, and worked through the series before declaring that it was impossible to paint like Titian today and admitting his failure.

Annunciation after Titian (oil on linen 1973)

This dialogue with illustrious forebearers is another recurrent feature of Richter's work. The Reader painting (number 4 above) uses a very similar theme and pose and lighting (although the direction of the lighting is modified, as well as the composition) to this famous picture by Vermeer, another painter greatly admired by Richter.

I was also struck, when looking at several works in the show, by references to Hammershoi, Caspar David Friedrich, and Constable or even Claude Lorrain. The painting below, made after one of Richter's own photographs, seems to me to hints at the last two painters in its archetypal rendering of a gentle landscape near Chinon, in the Loire valley of France.

Whilst I was looking at this very well set-out show, a huge storm burst above Paris and this, shortly after the storm is the view I had from the top floor of the Centre Pompidou....

Now which is more "real" in this image? The barely discernable townscape or the "abstract" drops of rain and other effects on the window pane that act as a filter to our vision?

The show will continue until September 26th, and I for one plan to go back to see it again.

There is also an exhibition of Gerhard Richters drawings and watercolours at the Louvre (until September 17th). Haven't seen this yet, but watch this space.....