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‘Abstraktes Bild’ (Abstract Painting), 1988, oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter is wary of all ideologies and of all exclusive claims on the truth. Having grown up under two totalitarian regimes, first in Nazi Germany and secondly in communist East Germany, he has every cause to be mistrustful of people and causes that ‘have the answer’. This scepticism extends to Richter’s views on art as well as to his general philosophy. Asking himself the age-old question ‘What can I know about the world?’, he comes to the conclusion, ‘Only what my senses tell me. But that doesn’t mean I know anything about the real world, about objects in themselves’.

The trouble with sense impressions is that they cannot be trusted; they change according to physical conditions in the outside world—witness Monet’s views of a haystack that change dramatically with the times of the day—and to our own inner disposition. We view the world differently when we are happy and when we are sad. In addition, the way we see the world varies according to our Weltanschauung ; hence, the very different representations of the world made by people in different cultures and different times. A Chinese landscape is as different from a western European landscape, as a medieval one is from a 19th century one. How then is it possible to attain some sort of commonality, constancy, let alone objectivity?

To put this search into a personal and historical perspective as far as Richter is concerned, we need to look at his circumstances in the early 1960s. In 1961 he had left Dresden, where he had a moderately successful career painting mural decorations. This enabled him to escape the full rigours of a state-imposed aesthetic, that demanded a socially-relevant realism, based on a late 19th century model. Even so, his freedom to experiment and express himself was severely curtailed. When he saw works by Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana at the 1959 Documenta exhibition, he was deeply impressed by their lack of imposed constraints and the radical ways in which they sought to express themselves. This strengthened his resolve to escape to West Germany, which he did in 1961. He decided to go back to art school, to the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, and eventually to study with Karl Otto Götz, who practised a form of expressive, informal abstraction, informel .

Richter could not have chosen a better place to live and work than Düsseldorf at this particular time. Informel was still enjoying widespread success and was seen by many in the art world as a new artistic world language. But there were voices of discontent. Some artists and critics felt that informel was just as constrained as socialist realism, except that, in its case, the constraints did not come from without (the state), but from within, from one’s own personality, one’s own decision-making, one’s own history.

This discontent was growing on both sides of the Atlantic. It took several forms, but two were particularly influential in Düsseldorf and for Richter. Düsseldorf was the European centre of the fluxus movement. Fluxus, as its name implied, was totally opposed to a fixed personality (academy-based) form of art. Art was part of life, and since life was in a process of constant change (flux), art had to change all the time. It could not be bound to any one medium, any one art form, not even any one practitioner.

'Mustang-Staffel' (Mustang Squadron), 1964, oil on canvas 
‘Mustang-Staffel’ (Mustang Squadron), 1964, oil on canvas

The fluxus artists, therefore, organised festivals or concerts where happenings or actions could take place in a free-flowing manner with several people being involved in any one event. Richter knew a number of people, including Joseph Beuys, who were connected with the fluxus’s movement and he attended some of their key events. Richter never abandoned his belief in practising one art form, painting, but he shared fluxus’ distaste for individualist ideologies and for the West’s emphasis on personal expression.

The other development that grew out of a revolt against the arbitrariness and solipsism of abstract expressionism, at least in its later manifestations, was pop art. Pop first emerged in Britain in the early to mid-1950s, established itself in the USA in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It did not reach Germany until 1962-63 and Gerhard Richter was a key figure in its short-lived and narrowly focused life. Whether we wish to call it German pop art or not, what is important is that in 1962/63 Richter, Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg (all good friends and attending the Düsseldorf Academy) turned away from informal abstraction towards a figurative form of painting based on the use of popular, mass-media imagery. They may have moved in that direction before coming into contact with American pop art, but there is no doubt that seeing photographs of works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol had a big impact on their work.

The key thing as far as Gerhard Richter is concerned, was not so much the use of popular imagery as found in newspapers, magazines and advertising, as the fact that this imagery was photographically based. In the short time that he had lived in Düsseldorf and studied at the Academy, Richter had been painting informal abstract works, trying to find equivalents in gesture, texture, tone and colour for his changing emotions, while at the same time trying to create successful compositions.

He was not really satisfied with his results, although he did have a solo show in the small town of Fulda. What he disliked was the extreme subjectivity of this approach. There did not seem a good enough reason to make one mark rather than another. When he began to use photographs as the basis for his paintings, he had an objective focus for his mark-making. Photographs provided him with ready-made subject matter, ready-made compositions and already simplified lines, tones and (if he was painting from a colour photograph) colours. Richter could concentrate on the act of painting.

'Familie am Meer' (Family at the Seaside), 1964, oil on canvas 
‘Familie am Meer’ (Family at the Seaside), 1964, oil on canvas

Of course, this leaves lots of questions unanswered and these questions are among the most important. The first is, how does he choose the photographic images? In the 1960s, and for most of the 1970s, Richter maintained that the choice of image was immaterial. The all-important thing was that the photographs had to have been taken by amateurs or at least that they were not ‘artistic’. Richter did not want to take on someone else’s style by the back door, as it were. However, in rejecting choice in this way, Richter was addressing the general, avant garde distaste for narrative at that time. He did not want to be seen to be making paintings which had subject matter, particularly when it was personal. However, although subject matter was not of prime importance to Richter, neither was it of no interest at all.

Later on he would admit to why he chose certain subjects, particularly photographs taken from his own family album. Several photographs were connected with the ‘last war’. ‘Mustang Squadron’, 1964, for example, a formation of American-built, British-flown fighter aircraft, similar to those that accompanied the bombers that destroyed Dresden. Growing up in Nazi Germany not far from Dresden, Richter would have seen lots of planes, German, Russian and maybe American and British.
Painting an image such as this was not fortuitous. Richter has a very clear awareness of history and the bombing of Dresden was a key event, for good or evil, in World War II. It is also not fortuitous that, during the same period that he was painting World War II aeroplanes, he was also painting images of contemporary fighter jets, such as the camouflaged XL513. West Germany was re-arming at this time (it was the height of the Cold War), very much at the bidding of the Americans and their NATO allies. This was a hugely controversial issue for many Germans.

These paintings were based on photographs taken from public sources, but on a more personal level Richter also referred back to the war and his own family experiences. For example, he painted a portrait of his mother’s brother, Uncle Rudi in 1965, wearing his military uniform during the war. The painting is based on a family snapshot and, like countless similar photographs taken in Britain as well as in Germany, shows a smiling relative before he goes off to war. In the same year Richter painted a portrait of himself as a baby with his aunt (as a young girl), Aunt Marianne. Again, there is nothing remarkable about the scene; it is, on the surface at least, a picture of domestic happiness.

What is unusual, is that Richter has chosen to personalise both images by stating quite explicitly that these are portraits of close relatives. By inference, or with a little calculation on our part, it is also possible to say that both are based on photographs taken during the Third Reich. In the 1960s drawing attention to one’s personal and family history during this period of national shame, was rare in Germany and particularly in German art. (Joseph Beuys’s mythologising of his experiences in the war is perhaps the most famous exception to this. Anselm Kiefer was to make the war an important aspect of his art in the 1970s and 1980s, but this was not based on personal experiences, since he was born after the war.) That Richter should do so, but then to give few clues as to why he was doing so, is typical of his understated, undemonstrative art. Further investigation reveals that Richter’s Aunt Marianne developed schizophrenia during her teenage years. She was taken into a mental asylum, sterilised and subsequently killed.

'Stadtbild TR' (Townscape TR), 1969, 3 parts, oil on canvas 
‘Stadtbild TR’ (Townscape TR), 1969, 3 parts, oil on canvas

It thus becomes apparent that seemingly innocuous images of happy family life hide tragic histories. Richter never wears his heart on his sleeve—he hates emotionally explicit art—but this does not mean that his art has no emotional timbre at all. Indeed, it is all the more effective for lying beneath the surface. Once one begins to study Richter’s subject matter, it becomes apparent that patterns emerge. There are numerous images in the 1960s of smiling people and idylls of contentment, but these images often prove illusory on closer inspection.

The most contentious subject of all is terrorism, the ostensible theme of Richter’s series of paintings ‘October 18 1977’ that depicts members of the notorious Red Army Faction (RAF), including Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof, both alive and dead. This is probably the nearest Richter has ever come to showing overt emotion in any of his paintings. While always rejecting outright the RAF’s murderous violence and their attempts to overthrow the state, Richter can’t help but show pity for their fate. In particular, the difference between the dreamy, even romantic innocence of the young Ulrike Meinhof, seen in the painting ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’, 1988, and her lifeless, recumbent torso in ‘Dead Woman’, 1988, is very poignant.

If choice of subject matter has not been arbitrary in Richter’s photo-based paintings, the way in which he has painted them has also not been as deadpan and mechanical as he made out in the 1960s. Close comparison between his paintings and the photographs that he based them on (all carefully archived in his so-called ‘Atlas’), reveal that he has always been prepared to simplify and alter images for greater clarity and impact. More importantly, he has, from early on, blurred his images, often using horizontal brush strokes in the still wet paint, to make outlines less distinct and to emphasise the materiality of the paint surface. Above all, what this smearing and similar techniques have done is to make us question what exactly we are looking at and the complex relationship between paint, photographically based image and reality itself. Richter has at times wished to stress one of these three elements (realities themselves of course) at the expense of the others.

In 1966, inspired by paint colour charts, Richter began to paint grids of flat, monochrome colours. In the work ‘Eighteen Colours’, 1966/92, he went one step further and made each colour into a separate unit of a multipart work. Richter developed this aspect of his work, this emphasis on paint as paint, in various directions. In paintings such as ‘Untitled (Green)’, 1971, he concentrated almost exclusively on brushwork, although the painting grew out of images of undergrowth. In ‘Red-Blue-Yellow (Reddish)’, 1972, he mixed together the three primary colours on the canvas to such a degree that the resultant hue is a dirty, reddish brown.

'Venedig' (Venice), 1986, oil on canvas 
‘Venedig’ (Venice), 1986, oil on canvas

In his ‘Grey’ paintings Richter experimented with the various ways that paint can be applied to canvas, by brush, palette knife or roller. Using the neutral colour grey, he was able to concentrate on facture to the virtual exclusion of all other painterly issues.

This development in Richter’s work proved something of a dead-end for the artist, although it strengthened his resolve to continue working in an abstract manner. Whereas his abstract paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s eschewed, as far as possible, all conscious attempts at composition, at making any ‘aesthetic’ decisions, in the late 1970s and 1980s Richter found a way of objectifying his procedures, so that he could ‘invent’ abstract compositions. He did this initially in small abstract sketches, which were made up of as wide an array of marks as possible and devoid of any obvious sense of composition. He then photographed the sketches and ‘copied’ the projected images onto large canvases. In this way he could retain the control and cool, cerebral quality of his photo-paintings and yet have the freedom offered by abstraction. By keeping the sketches small Richter managed to avoid the compositional problems associated with larger works. As time went on and he grew more accustomed to his abstract language, he began to make larger ‘sketches’, until he was painting large, finished paintings without any need for a photographic go-between.

Significantly, in order for this to happen, Richter used certain painterly devices to introduce the objectifying corrective of chance into his works. In ‘Yellow-Green’, 1982, he used a squeegee to apply paint over other colours. The uneven distribution of paint, the lack of a personalised brush stoke or palette knife mark, make this and similar works seem less like a piece of informal abstraction, something that Richter after all had been desperate to escape from in the early 1960s, when he began to paint from photographs.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Richter developed a technique using the squeegee that completely integrated all the layers of paint, producing a much more unified surface. In fact, the scraped and smoothed surface looks increasingly like the blurring employed earlier in his photo-paintings. It is almost as if the smeared horizontal bands of paint in, for example, ‘Canaletto’, 1990, were masking something beneath, not necessarily anything figurative, but of numinous importance. These paintings with their luscious colours (reminiscent of Venetian painting at its best) are among the most accomplished works the artist has made. In a note, now famous, written in 1966, Richter said:

I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency;

I have no programme, no style, no direction.

I have no time for specialised concerns,

working themes, or variations that lead to mastery.

I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want.

I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive;

I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.

Although we now know that he has very definite working themes, that he has a very particular style (or rather styles), that he uses highly evolved systems to paint his works, there is still much truth in what Richter said in 1966. His art is effective and evocative on so many levels, precisely because Richter likes uncertainty and ambivalence.

Keith Hartley is chief curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art