Gerhard Richter: Panorama,Tate Modern

30 Nov

This exhibition, as the title implies, is a panoramic visual sweep of German artist Gerhard Richter’s work since the early 60s. From his first catalogue piece Table 1962 via grey monotone work and photo-based canvasses through to the later abstractions we are presented with an array of contradictions, technical diversity and twists of approach.

Gerhard Richter, Table, oil on canvass 1962

For me the exhibition is a palette of thought expressed in paint, a sweeping record of a man’s sustained existential reflection on life. There are no answers here, but there are responses aplenty. Responses to his historical past: Richter managed to escape from East Germany across to West Germany in 1961 just before the Berlin Wall was about to be constructed.

Gerhard Richter, Uncle Rudi,1965, oil on canvass

He was one of the first post-war painters to reference the reality of the connection  between families and their nazi past. Uncle Rudi 1965 shows Richter’s Uncle Rudolf Shonfelder in full National Socialist uniform as painted from a photograph that many German families of his generation would have recognised and felt uncomfortable with. Responses to the media, which he was confronted with and fascinated by for the first time in the 60s in the non-communist West. Many of his paintings are taken from adverts in magazines and newspapers (Ferrari 1964; Folding Dryer 1962; Negroes (Nuba) 1964).

But perhaps one of his most important responses is the one to Marcel Duchamp. In an interview with Nicholas Serrota, in reference to Duchamp, Richter says “I remember his Nude Descending a Staircase was thought of as the end of painting”, Serrota replies “So you wanted to show that painting was still possible in spite of Duchamp?”. “Yes”, says Richter, “I wanted what you might call ‘retina art’ – painterly, beautiful, and if needs be, even sentimental.” (1)

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending Staircase, No2. 1912

Richter’s portrait of his naked wife Ema, painted from a carefully lit photograph, in my opinion, is certainly not sentimental. If Duchamp’s Nude is a study in movement, perhaps inspired by the photographic analytical works of Edward Muybridge, then Richter’s response is a highly intelligent critique of the former. Looked at side by side, Duchamp’s painting is striking in its bold sense of mechanical movement, a frame by frame shift across the canvass, still paint has gained kinesthetic traction.  And yet Richter’s movement is less literal. Ema is moving in subtle ways: she is moving from photograph to paint (from silver gelatin to oil and linseed); she moves from dark shadow on her right to soft light on her left, with the lines of the staircase showing through her left arm; she moves from dream (her eyes are closed) to waking (she is steadily stepping down the stair); from private (a personal photograph) to public (gallery, but also, is the stairwell a public one?).

Gerhard Richter, Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966 oil on canvass 200x300.

Perhaps ‘movement’ is a key word in assessing Richter’s work – freedom of movement. In an interview he once said “all that I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom. No paradises.” (2)

Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting 1992, oil on aluminium, 100x100 cm

This exhibition demonstrates that remarkable expression of possible freedom.


(1) Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Publishing 2011

(2) An Interview with Gerhard Richter (1986), Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. In Gerhard Richter October Files 8 MIT Press 2009

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