The best contemporary German art raises key issues for theory and practice, touching on the philosophy and ethics of the image and its reproduction, the deep relationship between photography and painting, and the dense entanglements of art, history and traumatic memory. The work of Gerhardt Richter is an especially rich domain for the consideration of these relationships. I have been studying Richter’s art for several years. Richter is almost unknown in Australia. The first ever exhibition of Richter’s art in Australia was held October 2017 – February 2018 at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). What a remarkable achievement, to mount this extraordinary exhibition. Congratulations and a thousand thanks to the far-sighted, visionary director Chris Saines and the co-curators Geraldine Barlow and Rosemary Hawker.
Richter is also a prolific writer whose thoughts on painting, photography and the art industry are a constant source of inspiration. It is impossible to do justice to even a fragment of Richter’s work. There are several outstanding monographs and commentaries available. His Atlas project, which brings together virtually all the photographic images which have inspired him, is available online, as is the full set of his paintings in the catalogue raisonne, which is probably the best artist’s website ever. I make no claims to reflect on all aspects of Richter’s work here. It is really a PhD project – one I had thought to begin around ten years ago but that never happened and it won’t happen now! However I do plan to write more on his landscape work, which is the least known and most over-looked, on a separate page. Meanwhile I want to pay tribute to Richter who is now well into his 80s and appalled at the current art market where his paintings are, on the rare occasionsl they are available, selling at stratospheric prices: a recent work in the Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale, Abstraktes Bild 649-2 sold for US$27.6 million (October 2020).
However my most profound Richter inspiration came from his riveting early work Helga Matura and her Fiancé (1966 Oil on Canvas 200 x 100 cms)
This was the first painting by Richter I ever saw “in the flesh”. It was included with an exhibition of Pop Art in Sydney. A very large canvas, its monochrome and blurring were completely gripping. What was the real story behind Helga Matura and her boy lover? The technical elements in the painting were astonishing. But I still know nothing about the narrative behind it. I have never found the source of that narrative, no doubt in a German newspaper of the 1960s.
There is too much to say about Richter’s art to include in a brief page here. Although I had hoped to write a much longer piece on Richter’s early art, especially his monochromes and historical works, it is a project beyond my capacity. Richter remains almost unknown in Australia and seems to have influenced almost nobody here. As an elderly white male German artist, he is far outside the lineage of contemporary influence, although definitely not outside the purview of art collectors who are paying ever more astonishing prices for his works.
One aspect of Richter’s work which is particularly relevant to my present interests is his very provocative approach to landscape painting. I will discuss this further on another page. This discussion is still in development and will be added to progressively.