Art: Gerhard Richter, Panorama

From grey, blurry photographs to colourful squeegee miasma abstractions, this astounding retrospective showcases Richter’s varied and breathtaking talents

-Kathryn Bromwich

After exhibitions at the Serpentine in 2008 and at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, Gerhard Richter’s profile has increased noticeably in Britain, culminating in this remarkable retrospective at the Tate Modern. The exhibition has sparked the inevitable comparisons to Lucian ‘the last great painter’ Freud. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian puts it pithily, if reductively: while Freud resisted photography, Richter embraces it. Richter’s decision to paint largely from photographs makes photography his ally rather than a competitor, using it as a tool for innovation. And the results are spectacular: his paintings have an idiosyncratically Richterian tone, although it is difficult to put your finger on what exactly this tone is.

The retrospective starts off breathtakingly. The first few rooms are predominantly grey, bleak, and stunning. Featuring WWII bombers, so small they look like toys, and a life-size tiger, the subjects are varied but tend to contain a hidden menace. The impact of the Holocaust on Richter’s family is handled with subtlety, but its representation is profoundly disquieting. Richter’s young Aunt Marianne, who suffered from mental illness, was sterilised and killed in a concentration camp. She is portrayed looking vaguely into the distance, in an unsettling painting that avoids sentimentality or idealisation, making it all the more crushing. Another emotionally charged image is the painting of his Uncle Rudi, smiling amiably in his SS uniform days before his death in action.

Moving away from representations of people, Richter becomes interested in landscapes. There are two superb pictures of water: one simply of the sea under a cloudy sky, and the other, Seascape (Sea-Sea), brings together two pictures of waves, the top half inverted to look like clouds. Another optical illusion, albeit a less idyllic one, is found in his townscapes of Madrid and Paris. Seen from close up, they look destroyed by war, like bomb sites. When you step back, the buildings start to take shape: what you are looking at are actually the reconstructed cities. There are also some interesting experiments, such as Inpainting (Grey), in which Richter covered a canvas in blobs of oil paint, dragged his brush around almost at random, and stopped as soon as all the blank canvas was covered.

So far, so grey. In the mid-1970’s, Richter discovers colour, and discovers it with a passion. In a painstaking, Mondrianesque grid containing cubes of thousands of different shades, Richter creates the appearance of a curiously modern kind of stained glass window. He also starts experimenting with abstract art, painting enormous, colourful works with titles such as ‘Untitled’ or ‘Abstract Painting’. His numerous squeegee-created miasma paintings are as divisive as Rothko: personally I found some to be exceptionally beautiful, but was left cold by quite a few of them.

The exhibition goes on, through many different subjects and styles. There is an evocative triptych of clouds, a cathedral dappled in sunshine, and a painting of his wife in the style of Vermeer. A minimalistic series of paintings on life and death features a skull, and a candle which you will recognise from Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Courting provocation, there is a Duchampesque painting of a toilet roll, and one work called Mirror, which is simply a mirror. Richter’s oeuvre is not confined to painting: this aspect of his work is represented by a room of photographs smeared with dabs of paint, and various geometric sculptures made of glass and metal throughout the exhibition.

One of his best-known works is the uncanny portrait of his daughter Betty, looking away, leaving her face completely obscured from the viewer. Shortly afterwards, Richter painted his darkest series: the Baader Meinhof paintings, entitled 18 October 1977. These 15 paintings illustrate the story of the left-wing terrorists’ childhoods, crimes and imprisonments, including their mysterious deaths while behind bars. The paintings are morally ambiguous, offering no judgement, and make for incredibly uncomfortable viewing. On the subject of death, there is also a disturbing series called Tote, ‘Dead’: drawn from the news story of a lion killing a tourist in a Spanish zoo, the paintings become increasingly blurred as the man is ripped apart. One of Richter’s latest and most affecting works is a painting of the Twin Towers on 9/11, small, blurred and almost unrecognisable, as if trying to erase the horror of the event. Although it is an impossible event to depict subtly, Richter gets it right here.

The last room, “located as a bonus track in a greatest hits CD,” is reached by passing through the coffee shop. Inspired by John Cage’s 4’33 and his dictum “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it,” the Cage Room contains several large abstract paintings, largely on the grey side. In Richter’s own words, grey “makes no statement whatsoever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations; it is really neither visible nor invisible… Grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, noncommitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape.”

Drastically different from each other in both execution and subject, the chronologically ordered rooms in the exhibition don’t offer a clear narrative or development. One Richter ‘style’ can be found in the frequently faint, smudged edges, the meaning of which is anyone’s guess: the failure of memory, a Heisenbergian indeterminacy, the weakness of human perception, the uncertain nature of reality, the impossibility of capturing the real world with art. Whatever the meaning of the Blur, it is not forced upon the viewer: like the best part of this retrospective, it is a technique that is as fascinating as it is simple.

Until 8 January 2012

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