Showing at the Tate Modern until 8 January 2012
My previous review looked at an exhibition focused on the Dutch artist Vermeer and his contemporaries. It was an intensely psychological exhibition, masked by visuals that were superficially easy and uncomplicated. With Vermeer, we are often led to apparent answers in paintings, only to find a plethora of unresolved questions.
Leaving the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Tate, one is greeted by a similar sense of uncertainty. It's interesting to note that Richter himself acknowledged the influence of Vermeer's work Girl Reading Letter at an Open Window in his 1994 piece Reader. Both images question the very idea of a portrait; the idea that the viewer can simply understand or get to know the sitter through a careful viewing.
The theme of questioning history and reality; questioning absolute truths and established methods, is not surprising considering Richter's upbringing. Born in Dresden in 1932, he was to experience the full horrors of conflict on an industrial scale. In a different world, Andy Warhol, who was born four years earlier, drew on consumer culture and religion of the New World for inspiration; Richter drew on the destruction and repression of the Old. Richter was seven when Germany invaded Poland, and war is a constant refrain throughout his work.
Initially he comes to terms with this the unease surrounding post-war Germany through an aggressive statement. Scrawling graffiti across the superficiality and lies of post-war Germany in Party (1963), he mutilates an image of well-to-do feigned normality. It's a theme Richter was aware of in Weimar art: the juxtaposition of drunken fun and forgetting with the visible scars and distortions of war. A different approach is taken with Richter's Uncle Rudi (1965), which is a painted version of a photograph Richter family's collection. We are presented with a very clear - Teutonically blunt - image of a German soldier. As with Richter's rendering of photographs of allied air power in Bombers and Mosquito Squadron the message is clear: 'let's mention the war'.
Or perhaps not 'mention'. 'Meditate' might be a better word. Richter seems to be coming to terms with an event of such horrendous scale, that he could only really copy 'real' photographic images without directly commenting on them. With spectral images like Aunt Marianne, for example, we have a deeply personal family image from Richter's past. He is only able to subtly comment - blurring the image, rather than altering it. Richter muses on reality, not by altering it, but by tracing it through the medium of paint. The images are blurred and often say nothing - only that Richter was conscious of horrific events and understood the difficulties inherent in interpreting them.
Another internal struggle Richter wrestles with is the looming figure of Marcel Duchamp in 20th century art. The French artist 'invented' conceptual art in 1917 by simply signing a urinal 'R Mutt'. He would later declare he was 'more interested in the ideas than in the final product'. Richter seems to have both reacted against this and at the same time been profoundly influenced by it. His toilet paper, for example, both attacks and acknowledges Duchamp's attempt to turn everyday objects into art. Richter creates a touching and carefully crafted image from the mundane in a way Duchamp's urinal did not. At the same time, Richter acknowledges Duchamp's point that every day objects, as defined by the artist, can be works of art. Similarly he responds to Duchamp's complex abstract Large Glass with the simple 4 Panes of Glass and his uneasy forms in Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 with the glowing soft-edges of Ema (Nude on a Staircase).
Richter is perhaps best known for his 'squeegee' paintings, however; vast canvases of colour and energy. Again the impression created challenges the viewer's sense of reality, but now to the extent of hallucination or a dream polychromatic sweep. Almost impossible to interpret, these play with the viewer's sense of reality. In this sense the final Cage series of paintings may be saying nothing in particular - merely existing and resonating.
Yet Richter never seems to conclude and is continually experimenting. Even in 2002 he was back to referring to allied bombing of German cities. Indeed what makes this exhibition worthwhile is Richter's continual experimentation with different subjects, styles, and techniques. At some points we can see the influence of Rothko; at others Warhol or Pollock. The subjects range from religious refrains, to portraits, landscapes and statements questioning perceptions of reality. Richter never seems to have settled. This hints at his astonishing - and enduring - ability to mutate and soak up various different ideas and genres.