A recent post here about Degas at the RA touched on the subject of the impact of photography on painting, which is an unavoidable issue when visiting Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern. This is a major retrospective coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday, and, as with Tate Modern’s Miró retrospective earlier this year, it is impossible to dissociate the artist’s work from the turbulence of 20th century European history.
Richter was born in Dresden in 1932 and grew up under National Socialism followed by Soviet-enforced communism in East Germany. In 1961 he escaped to the FDR and began painting photographs from a family album (“… painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do”). Subsequently his works addressed the Nazi past and bombed cities, but also responded to the art he was seeing in the West – in 1965 Ema (Nude on a Staircase) followed an encounter with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No2 from 1912 (below right and left).
Once settled in the West, Richter’s work moved in various directions. The Tate show includes many works which are abstract, for example the Colour Charts and later Squeegee and Roller Paintings. But in the 1980s Richter produced images of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group based on press photography. And other representational work exhibited includes two haunting portraits of his daughter Betty from 1977 and 1988. These exhibit Richter’s ‘out-of-focus’ technique with edges softened by brushing across the wet paint.
As well as explorations like his 1974 work 4096 Colours, Richter is interested in optical effects – two constructions explore the reflections provided by parallel sheets of glass. 4096 Colours has a mathematical basis recognisable to anyone familiar with binary numbers. The square is of 64 x 64 elements; each of the 1024 shades appears four times. Each shade was generated as a unique combination systematically made from red, blue, yellow and grey (one source says green). He revisited its theme on a larger scale in 2007 for a new stained-glass window in Cologne Cathedral (below right, 4096 Colours left – but neither well).
Meryl Streep, in London for advance publicity of her film The Iron Lady (release 6 January) reportedly said that “she would like to go see Gerhard Richter at the Tate but thought she would be mobbed.” Perhaps the Director of Tate Modern will assist if she returns in January, although Streep must be more capable of adopting an anonymous persona than practically anyone else – so perhaps she’s already been unrecognised. Lesser mortals have until 8 January. In the meantime, Richter’s website is excellent.