The Australian art-world remains almost totally impervious to contemporary or recent European art, especially the art which is now regarded as at the peak of importance and value by galleries and collectors around the world. From my own viewpoint, the almost total invisibility of Gerhard Richter as one of the predominant European artist of our time seems especially remarkable. Born in 1932, he is now 91 years of age. He is often referred to as one of the world’s most influential living artists, but you’d never know that in Australia.
It is true that Gerhard Richter embodies all the things which a contemporary sensibility might reject. He paints, makes marks on canvas or other substances producing images which can be hung on a wall. He is largely associated with representational art although his large-scale highly coloured abstracts are in great demand in the sale rooms. He is an artist who has lived his life in “our” times.
His refusal to commit to a single “style” or genre has been taken as a challenge to the implicit ideologies embedded in generally accepted formulas about the history of painting. His distaste for aesthetic dogma is said to be a response to his early art training in communist East Germany, at the Kunstakademie in Dresden from 1952-1956, after which he was considered a successful social realist painter.
Exposed to the avant-garde in the West, he decided to move to West Germany in 1961 and studied at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. In contrast to his fellow-students, such as Sigmar Polke, he began to make photo-based paintings, monochromes, often on a large scale based on newspaper photographs.
Richter’s 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. I have been studying Richter’s art for several years.
I haven’t searched German writings on Richter, which is a major oversight, but my main concern has been the almost total lack of penetration of a shared European consciousness of “our times” in contemporary Australian art.
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!
A controversial bio-movie about his early life was released under the English title “Never Look Away” in 2018. Over three hours in length, it was directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, who also made “The Lives of Others” and “The Tourist”. Highly regarded and proposed for several prestigious awards, the film caused Richter himself much anguish. He had collaborated in good faith on the film, but felt it had revealed too much biographical detail. He had asked for an agreement that neither his name nor any of his paintings would be used in the film, but of course that was impossible. He said the film had abused and distorted his biography.
My first 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 at the Art Gallery of NSW. A very large canvas, its monochrome and blurring were completely gripping. What was the real story behind Helga Matura and her boy lover? It was like a modern genre painting, blooming with an uknowable narrative. The technical elements in the painting were astonishing. I have never found the source of that narrative, although it no doubt exists in a German newspaper of the 1960s.
Other well-known early works used personal photographs as well as magazine stories. He painted the victims of serial killers, his own relatives in Nazi uniform, famous European intellectuals and images from World War 2. One of his most brilliantly disturbing series depicted German terrorists of the Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof.
One of the most fascinating things in his early realist art is the use of blurring, very evident in Helga Matura. To take a representation of the real, as we see it constantly through photography in everyday life, then remove its reality by taking its edges away, seems a daring challenge to the idea of the real itself. It suggests the idea of the distinctive aura of the work of art, especially the way Walter Benjamin thought about the painting as almost a live being humming with its own truth. See especially Benjamin’s famous “On the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which everyone currently enthused about AI in art should read at once and then hang their heads in shame.
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.
One aspect of Richter’s work which is particularly relevant to my present interests is his very provocative approach to landscape painting. I was fascinated when I saw Richter’s first landscape works, especially those which looked like illustrations for a travelogue. Since then I have been trying to understand what it is he does in his landscapes which make them so unlike “landscape art” in a conventional sense. This is important for the development of my research on Australian Landscape Art and for the book I thought might come from it.
I have found nobody to share my enthusiasm for Gerhard Richter as an artist, a theorist, a philosopher and a brilliant provocateur of the modern. When I have asked fellow artists or painting enthusiasts I meet on occasion not one of them has even heard of Gerhard Richter.
Meanwhile I want to pay tribute to Richter who is 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) while an earlier Abstraktes Bild sold for $US46.352 million in 2015.
Up for sale on June 7 2023 at Martini Studio D’Arte is one of his wonderful monochrome Alpine series, silkscreen on light cardboard, 27.4 x 27.3 ins, with an estimated auction price of 14,000-16,000 Euro.