Richter at the Tate

Oct 10

For some reason it seems Gerhard Richter never receives the acclaim he deserves. Too gimmicky, too clever, too show-offy. What’s this if not an exercise in technique?

The control of tone and accuracy of line required to capture photo-realistic hair and clothing is obscene, of course. But once technique predominates to such a degree, does art get left behind? What does Richter have to say for himself about perception – and all art is ultimately making a statement about that subject – amid all this cleverness?

Richter was born in 1932. Like any painter, the overwhelming influence upon him is the Impressionists, and the belief that what we see is not what we think we see. But Richter grew up in the time of the photograph – the innovation that told us what we see is what we see. His paintings are a statement on this – though the representation is accurate, there is an randomness about what they capture. Why else would he paint a photograph of Dresden from several thousand feet, the damage wreaked by Allied bombing hidden from view?

I turned into a room and found myself close to a mess of blue and white smears, titled ‘September’. It felt vaguely evocative of the time of year. Imagine the sharp, tender shock when, having walked around the edge of the room and seen the picture again from a distance, I realised that the ‘September’ in question was a very particular one, that the mix of extreme abstract and extreme definition that characterise this exhibition had found their ultimate expression:

Is this a beautiful image? Can we really bring ourselves to say that? Just as there’s an ambiguity of perception, so there’s an ambiguity of morality in what Richter does. Of his famous pictures of the Baader Meinhof gang, he’s said: ‘Ever since I have been able to think, I have known that every rule and opinion – insofar as either is ideologically motivated – is false, a hindrance, a menace, a crime.’ Who is Ulrike Meinhof in this picture? A brutal murderer, or a thoughtful young woman?

The degree to which Richter chooses to corrupt his images is crucial. As he once said: ‘I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant.’ And in the Meinhof pictures the blurring is extreme.

Does he have a heart? Yes. It’s just hidden. Look at the reproduction of a photo of his daughter reading in the sunshine. He’s immortalised her with a cheeky wink, incorporating her into this famous masterpiece.

And you see his rage at times. You see it in the disconnection between death and destruction and media representations of war in his photos of bombers. And what of his Nazi father (though he never bought into the ideology), who was a teacher later barred from teaching under de-Nazification rules – a pitiable clown, his very identity fading away:

I left secure in my view he’s the greatest painter of the Twentieth Century.

Edit: Here is a really useful Richter page featuring a whole heap of resources about the great man.