Jacabo Pontormo, “The Greeting”, 1528-1529, oil on board, 202 x 156 cm

Jacabo Pontormo, “The Greeting”, 1528-1529, oil on board, 202 x 156 cm

About Memory

Blurred images and real reality – Richter and his Photo Paintings

German artist Gerhard Richter enjoys a great reputation in the contemporary art world. When conceptual art was popular in the 1970s, and painting was said to be dying, he pointed out a new way for art.

Photo and photo painting play important roles in the art of Richter.

There were some artists who paint according to photos ahead of Richter, many ancient artists, especially portrait painters, had treated photos as the auxiliary tools for their creations. For many people, a photo is the memory storage; for Richter, a photo itself was the reality. The photos he selected are not only from his personal experiences, but also collective experiences. Since 1961, Richter started to collect old photographs, which were published in newspapers and magazines, or photographed by himself, since the end of World War II, including the historical figures and portraits of the ordinary, and even some pornographic pictures. Richter considered them as an “Atlas”. These photos served as a part of Richter’s artworks, and were shown around the world together with his photo paintings. You could see the real world from the view of Richter from these photos. In the “Utopia” by Plato, he once quoted a maxim of Socrates: The world is a cage itself, the thing we see is only the shadow left on the wall, and we can touch reality only by means of philosophical thinking. From Richter’s photos, what we see is not only the shadow of the real world, but also real life, which is the real existence of a real human.

After the end of World War II, the artists of Richter’s German generation faced at least two important practical issues: Firstly, they needed to rebuild their relations with modernist art, secondly, they had to face the political split of countries after the start of the Cold War, as well as the permanent psychological scars of the German nation due to the war. Born in Germany in 1932, Richter finished a traditional realistic art training at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. However, he impulsively had a dialogue with the most avant-garde and most modern artistic language, when he initially saw abstract expression from New York in the 2nd Kassel Documenta in 1959. In 1961, before the Berlin Wall was built, Richter fled to West Germany, proving that he didn’t only advocate the abstract art form, but also a spiritual pursuit, which corresponded to the thinking of anti-authoritarian, and the pursuit of democracy and freedom, represented by the American abstract expressionism and European Informel abstract art. There are both abstract and figurative art in Richter’s works. He never fixed his art in any form when drifting between them. But the common thing in both his abstract and figurative artworks, is a sense of alienation. The sense of alienation exists between the artist and his works, as well as the works and the real world. You will have a feeling that rather than the content of the painting, the thing that the artist expresses is important. Viewing the surface of the painting, you can feel his cool eyes.

Gerhard Richter, “October 8, 1977”, Youth Portrait, 1988, 67 x 62 cm, oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter, “October 8, 1977”, Youth Portrait, 1988, 67 x 62 cm, oil on canvas

Andy Warhol in Europe

Since 1963, Richter began painting vague and precise paintings by refering to photos. It seems that his works “Kitchen Chair” (1965), “Jet Fighter” (1963) are replicas of the typical pop art in Europe. Experiencing the German bombing from American army in the Nazi period, witnessing the military contest between the East and West during the Cold War in the East and West Germany, the meaning of the jet fighters painted by Richter is completely different from Roy Lichtenstein’s humorous performance of jet fighters. In corresponding to the Pop Art, Richter and Siegman Polk together created an art that is called “Capitalist Realism”, which misappropriated the style of American Pop Art, but inherited the “Informel” at the spiritual level of European art. Richter recorded the reality as an existentialist, at the same time he revealed the reality of ruthlessness. Many of his photos are of his memories during the war. In 1945, the young Richter and his family lived in Dresden, which was being subjected to massive bombing. The gray American fighter aircraft in his painting was like the Phantom of the bomber years ago. The sense of mechanical order reflecting on the image is contrasted with the reality of chaos after the bombing. Looking at another painting finished in 1965, we can see that Richter’s uncle Rudi, dressed in the uniform of Waffen-SS, is smiling proudly into a mirror. It similarly originated from a photo, taken in the 1940s, the protagonist of which died soon after in a battlefield. The tables and chairs in his paintings were but ordinary things, serving as a symbol of the passage of time and the transience of life, like a painting of still life in traditional art, when the fighter and the SS officer carry too many painful memories, and symbolize war, violence and death.

These paintings not only record history, but also put forward a realistic problem. The problem that Richter proposed, did not just belong to his era and nation, but also belongs to all of us. The sense of blur manufactured by the artist reveals that: Everything on the painting is about the memory, and already belongs to history, but a sense of anxiety and fear still exists, lingering on the painting, as well as the minds of the audience, haunted by the notion. Like a ghost and flicking “Administration Building” (1964), located on the shore of the industrialized Rhine, witnessing the spiritual loss in the German reconstruction of official buildings post war.

Experiencing a historical shadow of Nazism, there is not idealism, nor glory in his works, while they depict ordinary realities and ordinary thinking, which is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes tragic, sometimes simply beautiful. When you look back at them, you will feel mystery and unease. Covered by his cool and plain images, there is cold and terrible violence. For example, all the characters are smiling in his painting “Eight Novitiate Nurses” (1966). Their young faces remind us of a students’ graduation photo, however these sweet and innocent faces have disappeared, as if they were the victims of a sexual murder. In an interview in 1966, Richter negated the view that a portrait was able to seize the “soul” or spiritual nature. His paintings prompt a belief that portrait photography is false: it is the violence by the media, hiding behind it, that usually forces us to smile.

Richter’s photo paintings remind us of American pop artist Andy Warhol, who is connected with shiny goods and stars. In fact, Warhol not only painted the Campbell brand tomato soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, but also painted the plane crash, the car overturned, electrocution chair, Jacqueline participating at the funeral of President Kennedy, and even thirty wanted criminals, specially created for the American Pavilion of the World Expo 1964, who were the victims of worshipping fetishism. Like Richter, Warhol’s creations were based on photos too, creating works by screen printing with the use of photos, published by the mass media. In his tragic black-and-white painting, there is a sense of ambiguity, which causes a distance between painting and reality, we may be capable of dealing with our own fears when there is a sense of distance.

Gerhard Richter, “Jet Fighter”, 1963, 130 x 200 cm, oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter, “Jet Fighter”, 1963, 130 x 200 cm, oil on canvas

“There is a disaster in each photograph”

Roland Barthes had reminded us in “Camera Lucida”: behind the rich contemporary photography, you can find fuzzy shadows of death, because every photograph shows an instantaneous death. In the face of my mother’s photo at a young age, I told myself: She is dying. I was shaking in the face of the disaster that had occurred. Whether it was themed on death, or not, every photograph was a harbinger of such a disaster.” In Richter’s series of paintings “October 8, 1977” (1988), it was a fuzzy memory of death. The group paintings, created based on realistic images, were the most important among Richter’s works. It depicted the day on October 8, 1977, three key members of Bader-Meinhof group, the German terrorist Red Army Faction, collectively died in prison. As the leader of the group, Ulrike Meinhof used to be a fanatical preacher, influenced by her words, the young people resonated with the Red Army Faction. Richter had painted three paintings of different size for her, depicting the tragic stories of this young woman hanged in prison. Her thin body was laid on the cold ground, and her neck was elongated by a rope, and embedded with a deep cut. On the contrary, the first one in this group of paintings is from a  black-and-white photo of Meinhof, years before her arrest, when she was a well-known newspaper journalist, looking young, intellectual and charming. Richter’s blurred painting, weakened some of she tough facial features, added a hint of the women’s gentle character. Compared with the photo, painting is magical, which is capability of recording reality, in addition, to beautify it, making violence become mysterious, death become beautiful. We feel the shock of the mind when seeing these images of death, is it the tragedy of reality itself that impresses us or does Richter’s image do better?

From the late 1960s to the late 1970s, the left-wing revolutionary group, composed of a group of radical young people, was the terrorist organization that the West German government treated as its biggest threat. They had manufactured a series of violent cases including explosions, assassinations and kidnappings with the monopoly capitalists and their interest groups. In 1977, the group was captured by the government, and their leaders mysteriously died in a prison. Although the government claimed that they died from suicide, many people believed that they were “murdered”. Richter didn’t want to solve the suspense whether these young people were murdered or committed suicide. His paintings only rendered the facts of death. The repetative paintings were like a slow motion film, the traces of life slowly fading away, and the shadows of death increasingly deepen.

In the description of death, Richter built a new moral myth, like the Bible themes of the Renaissance, among these were the defenders of morality and order – the nation, a symbol of Utopia and idealism – revolution, as well as a martyr sandwiched in between the two – the fanatical youth. Finally, who were the real criminals, then, who should be responsible for such crimes? The young people who died in prison painted by him were more impressive than photos and videos. They were neither revolutionary martyrs, nor murderers, only a bunch of vulnerable, naive poor young people who were exploited, although they had never found out the real left and right, they became the victim of power and idolatry of the state machinery.

Gerhard Richter, “Administration Building”, 1964, 98 x 150 cm, oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter, “Administration Building”, 1964, 98 x 150 cm, oil on canvas

When these paintings were exhibited in Germany in 1988, many people were angry, the rightist faction was disgusted by his sympathy for the Red Army Fraction, when the leftist faction criticized his works for being too weak and failed to reflect a clear political stance. Now we can hardly grasp the violent clashes between the left wing and the right in the Cold War. Compared to the fatal battle in the real world, the war in the art world seemed bland, but at the time, the ideological struggle affected the art. Two different camps of realistic and abstract paintings couldn’t wait to launch a war to kill each other. This conflict is like a jihad triggered by a religious conflict in history.

Richter’s art captured the spiritual lifeline of the era. What he did was not just how to paint, but also how to deal with the terrible memories, as an artist. In Richter’s works, images were blurred, like shooting the images of movement, as a matter of fact, image itself did not move, but your eyes did. We are always beyond reality, which glides around us, and was ignored.

As Freud said, “unheimlich was but “a repressed thing that emerges again… it is not a new thing or alien, but the familiar thing existing in the sensible, because it is dampened by the process, they become alienated.” The death Richter portrayed was bizarre and scary, it occurred in prison, called “Stammheim”, meaning “home” in Chinese. Richter’s works remind us of the repressed collective memories and spiritual practice of October 17, 1977, instead of one’s personal memory.

Human behavior always has some kind of persistence which is hard to understand, when it occurs again in some bizarre and horrible way. Therefore, war, violence, hatred and confrontation are always reproduced in different ways. The responsibility of an artist is to expose those “bizarre and terrible things”. His paintings revealed the “bizarre and terrible thing”, the fact that both the leftist and the rightist weren’t willing to admit: the fatal temptation and ruthlessness of ideology. The historical experiences that cost youth and life, should never be forgotten. After the 9/11 case, Richter pinned the photos and newspaper clippings of the youthful faces of the American soldiers in Iraq, as well as the dark smoke rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center, on the wall behind his desk.

Gerhard Richter, “Kitchen Chair”, 1965, 100 x 80 cm, oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter, “Kitchen Chair”, 1965, 100 x 80 cm, oil on canvas

From Richter’s blurred image, we can feel the passage of time and recall our memories. Today, after three decades, it is no longer an important thing for an artist to paint a realistic painting or an abstract; to paint or to make a video; to create a conceptual work or to create a performance. Historical experiences reflect that, neither art nor people should again be exploited by a conspiracy. The art is not only able to reproduce the space, but also be able to show time. An artist can preserve those that are unsure, unreliable and hesitate at memories. These precious memories can help us not only see the past, but also prompt us to think about the future.

To be continued…

Translated by Chen Peihua/CAFA ART INFO

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

This was published in the Literature & Art Studies, Issue 6 in 2009.

Related posts: