German artist Gerhard Richter has been described as one of the greatest living painters, who left a mark both in the 20th century and continues to push boundaries with his work even now. Without exaggeration, a retrospective of Mr Richter’s work which opened recently at the National Gallery is the cultural event of the season, a chance to see work of an artist who has oscilated between pure abstraction and photorealism.
On view are see early work such as a painting of Kennedy’s killer, Oswald, and Uncle Rudi (a painting based on a photo of a beloved uncle who at the same time was in the SS, 1965), to the artist’s abstract works. The exhibition shows how Richter, now 85, fits within the broader painting tradition (he himself cites the Dutch Masters as an early inspiration) but also shows his forays into pop art and other approaches. Above all, the show highlights the natural ease with which the artist has shifted throughout his career from entirely abstract works such as Grey to the show’s signature image - a 1977 portrait of his daughter, Betty.
At the opening, the artist made clear he was happy the retrospective was being held in Prague at the National Gallery’s Kinský Palace and at the Agnes Monastery which he said was more suitable for his work than the gallery’s Functionalist Trade Fair Palace (which for some would have been the more obvious choice). The artist at the opening on April 26:
“The cooperation was great. The head of the National Gallery, Jiří Fajt first suggested the rooms in the former Trade Palace. But this was architecturally not so suitable for the formats. I said: This is not right, I want something different. And then we came to the beautiful Kinský Palace.”
It’s hard to argue that the stately Kinský Palace isn’t a perfect fit. At the opening, here is how the head of the National Gallery in Prague Jiří Fajt described the show and its importance:
“For me this exhibition is a pure celebration of painting. Gerhard himself says that may sound a little old fashioned at a time when conceptual art is fairly dominant, where we often need an instructional manual to understand what is going on.
“Here, we are in the field of painting but of course that doesn’t mean it is without ideas. Even if the painter himself sometimes denies it, the works have a deep meaning and humanistic mission. That is what makes them exceptional.”
Fajt went on to describe some of the elements or some of the aims which are characteristic of the artist’s work.
For Gerhard Richter, a basic need to explore the possibilities or boundaries of painting as such is essential. From photorealism to abstract works - in the strictest sense. Some of the abstract paintings, as you will see, were based on industrial colour sample swatches yet he was able to turn them into fascinating work.”
The retrospective features more than 50 works by the artist who immigrated to West Germany and first settled in Dusseldorf in the 1960s, an artistic epicentre at the time; later he would relocate to Cologne. Some of his iconic early images refer directly to WW II: American or German fighter planes, the aforementioned Uncle Rudi which the artist donated to the museum at Lidice in Czechoslovakia the 1960s before he was well-known. Lidice was infamously razed to the ground during the Second World War, the men executed and women and children sent to the concentration camps (from which few returned) as reprisal for the assassination by Czechoslovak paratroopers of acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. Jiří Fajt told Radio Prague more about the early work:
“On the one hand, he has an intense need to reflect on the past and for a German that includes the tragedies of the 20th century and the World Wars. He is obsessed with duty to address the past and he was one of the first in what was a very strong generation of artists including Baselitz and many others.
“So the horrors of war and victimhood are addressed, as well as family past. In his own family his uncle was a member of the SS yet he had an aunt who was mentally ill who was kept at a hospital where Dr Heyde conducted horrific experiments on patients and she died there. So even in his family past, you have both active membership in the SS and a tragic death due to the Nazi regime.”
The hazy out-of-focus quality in many of Richter’s photorealist works, the famous “blur”, add a translucent element that both reinforces the illusion of the work “as a photograph” and undercut it as the same time: there is a mix of the everlasting and the ephemeral, a reality which can be grasped and yet remains somehow just beyond reach, like a shimmering image at the bottom of a well. In Uncle Rudi’s case, his smile belies the horrors of the regime he willingly served. You can take things at face value but there are deeper and deeper layers, if you choose to go below the surface.
Moving into the abstract, there is a similar interplay: the surface of a painting may be uniformly grey but the brush strokes left and right, dried in place, paradoxically accentuate a continual, never-ending dynamic of movement and energy. If you jump ahead to Richter’s Strips from only a few years ago or his Mirrors or his latest murky abstracts, it at times gives the feeling the viewer is seeing a show by a series of artists and not a single person. Compared and contrasted, the different works are remarkably crisp, powerful and fresh.
The Gerhard Richter retrospective continues at the National Gallery until September 3. Guided tours are offered in Czech and English and a beautifully-printed catalogue is also available. Look up all the information you need at ngprague.cz
The National Gallery’s Jiří Fajt addressed the fact that Gerhard Richter had worked in so many different approaches:
“If we approach his work through stylistic analysis, one of the basic approaches in the study of art history, not knowing all of this different work was done by one person, you would be completely thrown for a loop. His answer is beautiful: we DO live in a period when absolutely everything is relativized, there is confusion.
“He himself says ‘I also am confused’, I too am not sure. But the fact that I don’t know, makes me want to express myself in some way’. Figurative painting and abstraction, it doesn’t matter, both are the same and this is a thread that continues through his work right up until the present.”
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