Sunday 16 October 2011

Review of Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern

Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Tate Modern
6 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

For anyone who doubted that art could be a substitute for language, take Gerhard Richter (born Dresden, 1932) as evidence. A prolific artist, whose oeuvre includes paintings, drawings, glass works and sculptures (see, for example, Ball III, 1992, a stainless steel sphere, so unassuming one might pass it by unnoticed), yet who, in person, is most taciturn, responding to questions posed at the press conference to mark the launch of Panorama, his Tate Modern retrospective, at most with an “I don’t know”, and, more often than not, just a shrug.

There have been many shows of Richter’s work in recent years in the UK, including those at the Royal Scottish Academy (2008), the Serpentine Gallery (2008) and the National Portrait Gallery (2009), but no full retrospective. As the title “Panorama” suggests, Tate Modern’s aim is to provide “a picture containing a wide, unbroken view.”[1] Rather than being arranged thematically, the works are hung chronologically, which leads to smaller figurative paintings, such as Betty (1977) and Reader (1994), being interspersed amongst large abstract canvases, such as Yellow-green (1982) and Abstract Painting (1990) respectively. But, as Mark Godfrey, co-curator of the exhibition (alongside Tate Director Nicholas Serota), explains, the figurative and the abstract are not necessarily mutually exclusive in Richter’s work: “Abstraction and figuration dissolve into each other throughout the show.”

Certainly what comes across quite clearly is Richter’s fondness for the element of chance. From the random arrangement of colours in works such as 4096 Colours (1974), inspired by the samples and charts produced at paint shops, to the obscuring effect of the squeegee, at once blurring and concealing, whilst also revealing layers of underpainting and snapshots of earlier moments in the existence of the work, we are taken on a journey with serendipity. Achieving similar effect to his favoured tool, the squeegee, in Abstract Painting (1997), Richter peels off sections of the outer skin of paint, revealing sections which, to me, echo the appearance of falling leaves.

There is an element of contingency also in the sculptural 4 Panes of Glass (1967), a response to Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915-1923), since the angle of tilt changes with each installation. Likewise, the order of hanging of 18 October 1977 (1988) – Richter’s most celebrated series, depicting members of the Baader Meinhof group – is not fixed and varies from one exhibition to the next.

This concern and confrontation with German history is another resonating theme throughout the show. Right from the start, in room one, we are confronted with poignant subjects, and the intertwining of Nazi history and Richter’s own family past. Aunt Marianne (1965) is based on a photograph of his mother’s sister holding him as an infant. Suffering from mental illness, she was later sterilised and killed by the Nazis as part of their eugenics programme. In uncomfortable contrast to this, Uncle Rudi (also 1965) is a portrait of his uncle in Wehrmacht uniform. Later on, Richter’s Townscapes from the 1960s offer aerial views of various cities struck by aerial bombings during the Second World War. Through the use of heavy impasto, they are painted as if still bombed out, in stark contradiction to the general mentality of the period which was the wish to repress such images and memories of destruction.

Richter does, however, question the viability of painting to adequately express and represent such subjects. For example, he has produced not one but three images of Ulrike Meinhof following her death (Dead, 1988), implying his dissatisfaction with the medium’s capacity to depict such a sorrowful fate. More recently, September (2005), based on a photograph of the 9/11 attacks, is small and deliberately subtle, certainly not one of the most startling images of the event. Worked over with a knife, the artist’s struggle with the subject matter is viscerally expressed.

Whilst the scope of the exhibition is indeed panoramic, unfortunately the hang is less so. If I were to have one criticism, it would be that the paintings are not allowed to breathe, or to bask in the space required for a full appreciation. This is a shame, but, nevertheless, for anyone wishing to acquire an overview of the vast work of this great artist, who celebrates his 80th birthday next year, you can’t go far wrong. Although Richter confesses that there is nothing in the current news or politics which is inspiring him, he is also famous for having said: “Art is the highest form of hope,” so let’s just hope that there are a good deal more works to come.

[1] Mark Godfrey, co-curator.

Gerhard Richter Abstract Painting 1990 CR-724-4 Private Collection © Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter Aunt Marianne [Tante Marianne] 1965 (CR 87) Yageo Foundation, Taiwan © Gerhard Richter

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