On 23 December, the Friday, I had a half day, and amazingly I had for once done all my Christmas shopping. So I headed to the Tate Modern to have another look at the Gerhard Richter exhibition. I’d been there before, raced around, been amused by the war planes and the “grey period” (which was very grey – in fact nothing but grey) and loved the bright anarchy of some of the abstracts. I’d thought, very German. Serious and absurd at the same time. A bit like listening to Kraftwerk. But I felt that I should give it more, immerse myself and try to understand.
What follows are my reflections on the journey through the exhibition second time around. Headphones on to help me understand where he was coming from, but most importantly, plenty of time to absorb and interpret – and feel. I took notes on my iPad as I went through through the gallery – how modern is that? – and this is what I found.
There’s a theme, especially at the start, of the clash between the figurative and the abstract. Richter paints real objects, often from photographs, and then distorts them. The most blatant is his table, which is obscured by a whirl of grey – the application of solvent I believe. It seems like wanton destruction of the painting, but enough remains to match the faithful and the vandalistic.
We move on to some eerie representations of the second world war. From photos, Richter paints the bombers that destroyed his home city of Dresden. The British and the Americans both get a look in. Then he portrays relatives who had a Nazi past. His Uncle Rudi in military coat, his Aunt Marianne holding him as a baby. They are all blurred somewhat – murky, imprecise. Representing the vagueness with which the memories were still held. These pictures were painted in the sixties and confronted a past that people didn’t want to confront. That is the bravery of art. The picture before you doesn’t tell the whole story.
Richter was very taken with the French cubist painter Duchamp, who declared the end of art, or something like that. Of course it never ends – you see it everywhere. Go into any secondary school and look at the fantastic work that the pupils are producing and then say art is finished. Never! But anyway, Richter’s response was some hazy works that paid tribute to Duchamp. His wife, Ema, descending a staircase, nude. Two couples, smiling, disintegrating. It made me think of the Velvet Underground, musically. Heroin, European Son. Vague, disorientating.
Then there were some panes of glass… which were panes of glass. Which you could rearrange (well, if you were the curator). So they would look different each time. OK, I liked the audacity, but they were still just panes of glass. I like the explanations though. It’s art, maan…
The first of the blocks of colour was next. Just 192 this time. Fascinating. A simple concept- the juxtaposition of the colours available in the paintshop. Your eyes wonder over the whole, checking, blurring, wandering. For Richter it was about everyday life, but he took it further – see later.
In stark contrast with the colours were a series of paintings of townscapes, again from photographs. They were again in greys and blacks and whites and looked like the towns and cities had been flattened. As far as I understand that wasn’t the original intention, but Richter himself agreed later that that was what they looked like. Subliminal? The war again?
And now into the grey period! Lots of canvasses which were very grey. The end of art? The era of depression? The victory of the factory, the motorway? Der Autobahn? When you have such a blank, spare canvass, it’s up to your imagination. There are textures, crenellations, but essentially they are just grey. My children would say: I could do that. They are just grey. But just being grey says all sorts of things. Depression, hopelessness, inertness, impersonality. These, I imagine, were the emotions, or non-emotions, that Richter was trying to convey. The end of art. But in fact not the end, because so much is left to the imagination.
Then we had the ultimate in colour configuration. 4096 squares. Three primary colours and grey. Built, multiplied ,mixed, re-ordered, replicated. A really fascinating canvass that plays tricks with the eye, invites you to see patterns and outbursts, endlessly intriguing. One of the highlights. And so basic. The story of colour.
It was then time for the abstracts. The blurb tells us that this was a time of happiness in Richter’s life. A new relationship. Colours, excitement, the banishment of grey. Hurrah to that! It began with some distorted photo works – strange flowers and artefacts. Pinks and greens. But then my favourite room. A set of paintings which were just really bright – greens, yellows, slashes of red, wedges of blue. They appealed to my primal sense. Lovely, exciting colours. I didn’t care what they were about. On close inspection, I could see the intricacies of the painting, the early use of the squeegie, layers upon layers of paint. Some then scratched away, supplanted. A riot. Fantastic. At times I thought I was seeing an underwater scenario, with weird fishes – cue Radiohead. Or a wild summer scene. There was so much left to the imagination in the swirl of colours and shapes. And on the end wall a vast mirror. Just there. Reflecting back on you. Altering your perspective, adding a touch of self-consciousness. Brilliant.
In later rooms the abstracts became denser, darker. More use of the squeegee. A sense of dark forest and the shafts of orange and white light disturbing the sullen hue. A sense of reflections on the surface of a morbid lake. Foreboding, claustrophobic. OK, I was letting my imagination run riot here, but that is the glory of the abstract. It sets you up for some real speculation if you are ready to to play the game.
There were a series of eight small abstracts in a row, the last a different shape to the rest, which intrigued. They invited you to see a flow from one to the next. Again, giving you, the viewer, the power to invent a story, concoct a dream. In the middle paintings there were shards of colour, scraped from the surface to reveal the underlying paint that looked like flying drones in an Iain M Banks sci-fi novel, carving their way through the atmosphere of a gas giant. That was where I was going as I re-examined the paintings.
Elsewhere there were more specific items. A series of grey, blurred paintings depicted the Baader-Meinhof gang in prison. They were 1970s terrorists in Germany, or freedom fighters, depending on your take. There was an ambiguity, verging on sympathy, for the gang, many of whom died in custody, in the hazy grey paintings.
Richter also took the works of classical artists and delivered a modern depiction. In this exhibition there was a blurred take on a Titian painting about the annunciation. And a copy of a Vermeer in which a young woman read a book under a bright light. And there was a stark, beautifully-lit portrayal of his daughter with her back turned, in a red dress.
Towards the end there were paintings of 9/11, hugely blurred, inexplicit, no flames or thunder, but just a scraping of colour which might have been a plane. Mysterious, confusing. The dust cloud rather than the explosion. As ever, obscuring, but also leaving everything to the viewer’s imagination. Chilling.
Aside from the main exhibition there was a “Cage Room”. A whole series of wild abstracts on huge canvasses. Apparently painted while listening to the abstract music of John Cage. That seemed right. Richter’s painting, with its blurred images, abstraction, gloom and ambivalence, conjured up for me the sounds of the Velvet Underground, Bowie in Berlin, early Roxy Music, Kraftwerk. Lost and found. Hopeless and yet with space for the imagination and colour and even celebration. Glorying in the decadence and the rock’n’roll.
Gerhard Richter would probably be shocked at the the thought, but his art rocked!
In a very abstract way…
The paintings in this blog are taken from a Gerhard Richter art site. There are loads more paintings, but not everything that was in the exhibition.