Saturday, 1 October 2011

Gerhard Richter: Painting from Photos

Gerhard Richter, Gymnastics, 1967
I don't think I'm alone in associating Richard Hamilton, who died recently, almost exclusively with his brilliant 1956 collage, 'Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?', a Pop Art classic that you'll find in every book on 20th century/modern art. I remember coming across the picture in 'The Shock of the New' and being mildly astonished that its creator was British.

Unlike Rauschenberg and Johns, Warhol and Lichtenstein, Hamilton didn't spend years creating similar works that could be distributed among the modern art galleries of the world and assure his reputation. Instead he addressed subjects that interested or infuriated him (Bobby Sands, Tony Blair) in whatever he felt the best medium to be. The Tate website has some unlikely-seeming early work - diagrammatic line drawings of simple machines that might have been done by Hamilton's hero Marcel Duchamp.

Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London, 1967

According to the excellent obituary in The Guardian (which was written, slightly bizarrely, by Norbert Lynton, an art historian who died four years ago), Hamilton was essentially a painter, though not in the Lucian Freud mode. No long nights staring at a model for him. Instead, his wonderful, epoch-defining picture 'Swingeing London' was based on a grainy black and white newspaper photograph; both subject and composition came to him readymade, and his task was to translate the energy and immediacy of the Paparazzi snap into paint.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1606
The result is different from any picture he could have invented or made from his own sketch. It is a painting both of an exciting moment (Mick Jagger's arrest) and of a new phenomenon (the intrusive photographer), and the dramatic light and shadow remind me of Caravaggio.

When Hamilton painted 'Swingeing London' (he made at least one collage of the subject too, as well as prints), Gerhard Richter had been making his distinctive, blurry photo paintings for several years, and he was to continue doing so on and off until the late 1980s, when he brought the decades-long project to a close with a haunting series portraying the last days of the Baader-Meinhof gang (or Red Army Faction as they were officially known). You can see numerous examples on his website, and no doubt a few will make it to Tate Modern for the imminent retrospective.

Gerhard Richter, Aunt Marianne, 1965

In notes and interviews Richter tends to play down the personal in his work. He chose to paint from photos, he told an interviewer in the 1960s, because, 'When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated. I don't know what I am doing.' He chose banal, everyday subjects to avoid anything that might mean something already, or be part of some debate. Yet one of his earliest pictures, catalogued under 'Death' on his website, has an extremely significant subject: Adolf Hitler, under whose rule the artist grew up. While some of his family supported the Nazis, Richter's Aunt Marianne, a schizophrenic, was killed by them at a euthanasia camp; in his 1965 portrait she is holding the young Gerhard in her arms.

Mundane or historically charged, Richter's photo paintings are almost always filled with a sense of loss and longing, as if the image were of a dead loved-one, dimly remembered. This is as true of the 'October 18, 1977' (Baader-Meinhof) series as it is of the portraits and figures he painted in the 1960s. The pictures of Gudrun Ensslin are particularly poignant, showing us not a captured terrorist but a complex woman who seems by turns fragile, defiant, idealistic and lost. 'There is sorrow,' Richter said of these paintings, 'But I hope one can see that it is sorrow for the people who died so young and so crazy, for nothing.'

I've been trying to imagine what it could have been like to grow up in Nazi Germany, surrounded by Hitler's followers, to experience the outbreak of war (at aged 7) and the almost complete destruction of one's home city (Dresden 1945, aged 13), then to discover the horrors of Belsen and Auschwitz. Then there was the 1961 flight from Communist East Germany to the West, and a new beginning. He brought with him his wife and one suitcase, and memories.

Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 2 (Gudrun Ensslin), 1988
When I look at Richter's grey paintings, made in the late 1960s, I can't help thinking of Max Ferber, the Jewish-German painter in WG Sebald's 1993 book 'The Emigrants', whose art is as much about erasure as creation:

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to air, light or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often though that his prime concern was to increase the dust. He drew with vigorous abandon, frequently going through half a dozen of his willow-wood charcoal sticks in the shortest time; and that process of drawing and shading on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woollen rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust...

Ferber achieves success, late in life and almost in spite of himself, when his work is discovered by the London art scene. Richter, by contrast, has enjoyed a long, prolific and continually successful career; his output of abstract paintings since 2005 alone is quite astonishing. There have been a few photo paintings since the Baader-Meinhof series, but these represent a tiny proportion of his catalogue. Perhaps they were part of a process, and no longer needed.


  1. I don't believe I've seen 'Gymnastics' before -- I love it. Richter's three paintings of Gudrun Ensslin are extraordinary, I feel. Every time I see them, they seem freshly charged with pathos. I thought the room with the Baader-Meinhof series in it at the current Tate retrospective was very moving when I saw it.

  2. Thanks Jane - I've always loved Richter's photo paintings although, bizarrely enough, the first one I saw was a candle on a record cover, 'Daydream Nation' by Sonic Youth. Coming from the Midlands I love the colours in those pictures - they remind me of grey winter days.

  3. Hello James,

    I believe that painting photos is difficult, that's why I haven't tried doing it. But now that I'm inspired by your paintings posted on your blog I wanna try it already! Wish me luck! :)