Murdered Aunt, Ghostly Nudes Star in Gerhard Richter Exhibit

An undated handout photo provided to the media on Friday, Feb. 27, 2009, shows a painting by Gerhard Richter, entitled ''Betty'' 1988

Early in the splendid new “Gerhard Richter Portraits” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London you come across a painting titled “Aunt Marianne” (1965).

At first glance, it’s an innocuous enough image. A girl in her teens holds a baby in her arms. She’s smiling shyly, he’s frowning, perhaps just about to bawl. In the background are dark blurred shapes, perhaps trees in a garden.

Those shadows, though, may just as well have been the ominous forces of mid 20th-century history closing in. The little boy is Gerhard Richter himself, born in Germany in 1932. The teenager is his mother’s sister, then 14 years old.

Five years later she developed mental problems and was forcibly sterilized. Eventually, she was starved to death in accordance with a Nazi euthanasia program designed to exterminate the mentally ill.

Like all the paintings in the show, “Aunt Marianne” is based on a photograph, in this case a family snapshot. Richter paints not reality, but the camera view: black and white in this case, distanced by time. Richter’s method — and the stylish minimalist design of the National Portrait Gallery show — seems super cool.

Actually, as Richter told me when we talked last summer, that’s not how the artist sees it. “That’s not what I think about my pictures,” he said. “I feel the opposite — that they are shameless, so directly expressing what I am thinking and feeling. I’m not really a cool artist.”

Intense Memories

It’s true. Many of the works in this exhibition are freighted with intense personal emotions and memories, terrible ones in the case of “Aunt Marianne,” a note of unabashed happiness in the pictures of his own young children that you come upon toward the end of the exhibition. (In the last sections, the pictures shift from monochrome to color, and it’s like the sun coming out.)

“Ema (Nude on the Staircase)” (1966), a depiction of Richter’s first wife, is an image of an extraordinary ethereal eroticism. That’s another important point about Richter’s photo- paintings. They are often surprisingly emotional and oddly ghostly. They’re not pictures of people so much as of the faint traces left on film by living beings.

This is where Richter’s attitude is highly, and traditionally, Germanic in a way that goes back to the 18th- century philosopher Immanuel Kant. For Richter, as for many German thinkers and artists, real things and people are hidden from us beyond the veil of our own sensations. Richter once described reality as something, “of which I know next to nothing.”

Melancholy Blurs

Painting from photographs seemed a radical move when he began to do so in the early 1960s. In retrospective, Richter seems to fit into a tradition of precise and melancholy northern European painters going back to Vermeer of Delft, who may have used prephotographic optical equipment himself.

Using photography and optical aids doesn’t make producing a good painting any easier. Richter is doing a great deal more than simply copying a photograph. The blurring, for example, is often not there in his source. It’s a quality that Richer adds or accentuates to help the picture function. The final result is mysteriously individual, part of Richter’s artistic world, in the same way that Vermeer’s work is indefinably Vermeer-ish.

Richter’s photo-based paintings have been hugely influential. Yet none of his imitators have managed to attain the elusive mood that makes his work memorable. That is a sign of his quality.

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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