Tate Modern took on an exceptionally ambitious project in creating their exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work. Richter’s career is notable both for its duration and its diversity, both of which were beautifully conveyed. There is something irresistibly fascinating about this artist, who was born in Dresden in 1932 but moved to West Germany in 1961. What appeals most to me is his tenacity, and the way he uses art to confront uncomfortable historical truths.
The first room introduces the visitor to one of the most important techniques Richter uses: photopainting. This is the process of creating artworks based on photographs, taken from a range of sources including newspapers and family albums. He would often blur the paintings afterwards, to various effects. He showed the comparative luxury of life in West Germany by painting a sports car, which he blurred to create an impression of speed, and a travel advertisement. He heightened the colours in the latter, as a statement on the marketing industry’s exaggerated promises.
The most striking pictures in this collection, though, were intensely personal. Two pictures, Aunt Marianne and Uncle Rudi were displayed alongside each other. Aunt Marianne was pictured with the baby Richter, and they were blurred together. Uncle Rudi was presented in his Nazi uniform, but the blurring in this painting created a haze over him, which evoked contemporary German attitudes to the country’s recent past. It transpired that Aunt Marianne had been killed in the Nazi eugenics programme. A painting entitled Herr Heyde was displayed on the adjacent wall, and depicted the arrest of a doctor who was involved with this programme. The effect of this arrangement was typical of Richter’s unflinching portrayal of life in post-war Germany.
This approach was also manifest in a later collection, entitled 18 October 1977. I found this series the most powerful, and spent the longest time in this room. The date refers to the day when several of the leading figures of the Baader-Meinhof group (or Red Army Faction) were found dead in their cells. Their deaths were officially presented as suicides, but speculation about state involvement was rife. The aim of Richter’s display was not to comment on the group’s ideology or the terrorist acts they committed. It seemed depoliticised and worked on a more abstract, human level. This was a stark, unadorned testament to the deaths of a group of young people, leaving the viewer to form her own opinions about the context. Once again, Richter had identified a sensitive issue which many of his contemporaries would have avoided.
Richter has continued to address difficult political subjects, as he demonstrated in his emblematic work September, which depicts the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. The only difference here was that the rest of the world was equally willing to comment on, and condemn, this atrocity. The distinction in attitudes seems to be based on the popularly accepted apportioning of blame. September is a painting based on a photograph taken when the second plane hit, but it was blurred such that the neither the aeroplane nor the fire could be seen. Richter created the blurring effect using a knife, which created eerie impressions like the outline of an aeroplane in the corner of the painting. This was a common feature of Richter’s work, as he would frustrate the viewer by obscuring the anticipated details, making the works more tantalising.
This was just one dimension of a vast and varied exhibition, but it made a profound impression on me. I imagine it would require multiple trips to gain a full impression of this remarkable artist and his work.