Friday, January 06, 2012

Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern - Review

Gerhard Richter - entrance to Panorama Exhibition at Tate Modern
(note the blurry lady!)
Yesterday I went to see the Gerhard Richter Panorama Exhibition at Tate Modern before it closes on Sunday.

Of the two exhibitions about painting I've seen this week I liked this one less than the Painting Canada exhibition at Dulwich.  I'll try and explain why.  I do know I loved the colour I saw at Dulwich and I saw an awful lot of monochrome at Tate Modern - but there's more to it than that.

I guess the thing which threw me the most is the fact he hasn't maintained a consistent style.  It's not so much a Picasso progression through different styles over the period of his career so much as his ability to work in very different ways using very different tools at the same time!  The lack of commentary on technique of his paintings of "realism" was also somewhat frustrating.

On the other hand it is refreshing to see somebody who enjoys an exploration of what painting is and means.
Spanning nearly five decades, and coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday, Gerhard Richter: Panorama is a major retrospective exhibition that groups together significant moments of his remarkable career.

Since the 1960s, Gerhard Richter has immersed himself in a rich and varied exploration of painting. Gerhard Richter: Panorama highlights the full extent of the artist's work, which has encompassed a diverse range of techniques and ideas. It includes realist paintings based on photographs, colourful gestural abstractions such as the squeegee paintings, portraits, subtle landscapes and history paintings
Two of the new CAGE Paintings by Gerhard Richter
exhibited at Tate Modern
- gives you a sense of size!

I didn't buy the catalogue so this post is going to be observations about his paintings which won't necessarily reference them by name.  However I am going to create a bit of a mashup with commentary by linking you to:
Do let me know what you think about this approach!

Room 1: Photopainting in the 1960s - Guide

I knew Richter painted from photographs and had started doing this in the 1960s.  However I'd never seen one of his paintings before and hence was interested to see how he did he approached his paintings.  The overwhelming sense within this room was of monochrome - although it also included paintings with colour notably the ones of Egypt painted from photos in a travel brochure - see Egyptian Landscape Ägyptische Landschaft

I hadn't realised that his motifs at the time were about the way the luxurious lifestyle of western Europe impacted on a new immigrant from Eastern Europe - or addressing the "elephant in the room" issues to do with the Second World War which people were trying to forget or at least didn't talk about.  However Richter was born in Dresden - see Bombers  - before escaping to West Berlin two months before the building of the wall).  His paintings provide a comment on his family's involvement with National Socialism and the Nazis.  How very odd to have an uncle in the Wehrmacht and an aunt who was a victim and died as part of the eugenics programme.
Gerhard Richter's work, Aunt Marianne, went for £2.1m at auction. Based on a photo taken in June 1932, the painting shows the artist as a four-month-old boy sitting in the lap of his 14-year-old aunt.

The photo-realist painting appears to resemble nothing more than an innocent Sunday afternoon snap taken in the family back garden. But, in fact, it encapsulates Marianne's fate as one of 250,000 people killed under a forgotten euthanasia programme linked to Richter's own father-in-law.
Dismay as German painting is sold abroad - Guardian
I also loved the comment about the similarity of the ears between Horst and his - see Horst with dog.

This was also the point at which he began to blur his paintings using a dry brush.
Many of these paintings are made in a multi-step process of representations. He starts with a photograph, which he has found or taken himself, and projects it onto his canvas, where he traces it for exact form. Taking his color palette from the photograph, he paints to replicate the look of the original picture. His hallmark "blur"—sometimes a softening by the light touch of a soft brush, sometimes a hard smear by an aggressive pull with his squeegee—has two effects:
  • It offers the image a photographic appearance; and
  • Paradoxically, it testifies the painter's actions, both skilled and coarse, and the plastic nature of the paint itself.
In some paintings blurs and smudges are severe enough to disrupt the image; it becomes hard to understand or believe. The subject is nullified. In these paintings, images and symbols (such as landscapes, portraits, and news photos) are rendered fragile illusions, fleeting conceptions in our constant reshaping of the world.
Wikipedia - Gerhart Richter
Room 2: Art after Duchamp - Guide

I have to confess I didn't quite get the meaning underpinning the allusion to Duchamp other than that Duchamp had said that painting is dead in 1917 (connected to the urinal artwork).  (Here's a rather nice article by Catriona Black I found when searching for references to "painting is dead" titled Painting is dead: lone live painting).

However when I got home I was able to check that Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2 was in fact the one I thought I remembered.  I'd also previously seen Richter's Ema (Nude on a Staircase) - painted as a response to Duchamp's assertion that painting is fead.  It was great to see it "for real" - mainly so I could also study the ways in which he'd progressed the painting on from being one which he'd originally projected on to a canvas.

The internal commentary running through my head kept remarking on how smooth the paint was.  These are very smooth paintings and the brushwork is negligible - except in terms of its intended impact.

This room also included the first of the big colour chart paintings which I didn't know at all.

Room 3: Damaged landscapes - Guide 
This room was interesting - although very monochrome.

The rough brushwork certainly made the townscapes eg Townscape Paris look like bombed out buildings to me.  However Himalaya was far more convincing from a distance than up close - due to the same sort of brushwork.

The most impressive painting for me was Sea with Sea - I did the required double-take and worked out the answer before reading the caption ie that this was an amalgam of two photos with the sea in the second turned upside down to recreate clouds

I noted the supposed connection with German romantic painting

Room 4: Grey Paintings and Colour Charts - Guide
Richter worked on several series of grey monochrome paintings from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. He wrote at the time that grey ‘makes no statement whatsoever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations; it is really neither visible nor invisible… Grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, noncommitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape.’
One of my least favourite rooms.

I was absolutely convinced I could see a word in the distortion at the bottom of Grey Streaks.  I could not for the life of me see the point of the sculpture Double Pane of Glass

4096 colours was interesting in an intellectual challenge sort of way - but what a headache to paint!  Such a pity that they put 4096 colours on the Tate blog but don't bother to include the rechnical explanation of what it represents and how it was painted.

[This is his microsite for 4900 colours]

Room 5: Figuration meets abstraction - Guide
I liked the idea that the challenge of creating paintings without composition could be resolved by painting clouds - and I really liked his 1970 cloud paintings! (Cloud, Cloud and Cloud)

What's very weird - and I only realised this while doing this post is that this painting Tourist (with 1 lion) is painted from a photograph of somebody in a zoo who has just been killed by a lion - and the similarity of this to the cloud paintings in given the way he's dissolved the image.  Floating on a cloud now?

Room 6: Exploring abstraction - Guide
Abstract paintings that were not based on photographs started in the 1980s see Yellow-Green

I'm afraid I'm not a fan of his "brash and acidic palette".  To me these paintings just seemed crude.  That might be because I've seen how refined his approach became with later paintings - but I just think I'd have hated them whatever!

Room 7: Genre painting and early squeegee abstracts - Guide

While Richter had painted from photographs of objects since the beginning of his career, it was only in the early 1980s that he confronted the historical genre of still life and the tradition of vanitas painting.
This room included a rather lovely painting of a candle.  The Guide speculates as to reasons why Richter painted 25 versions of a candle.  

Perish the thought that it could be because it became an iconic motif which became very popular (it has massive scope for all sorts of meanings - see Candle: Gerhard Richter's Christmas spirit burns bright) and actually sold well!

I'm not a fan of the early squegee abstracts - however the commentary descrives what happens when a squeegee is used.

Room 8: Landscapes and portraits - Guide
The painting of Richter's daughter Betty really has impact.  The textual narrative pointed out that one realises she is looking at one of her father's grey paintings only when spotting the small rectangle of wall painted white in the bottom right hand corner.

The softened edges seemed to suit the landscapes. I thought Meadowland more successful as the soft edges suggested a moisture laden atmosphere whereas I thought it was rather more incongruous with the sunny painting that is Barn

Room 9: 18 October 1977 - Guide (page 3 of Richter's exhibition website)
This was a room of paintings of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang.  Somewhat disturbing as some of the the very grey paintings - done in the 1980s - were done from photographs of the dead members of the gang.  This relates to Richter's propensity for political comment and for tackling subjects that many would prefer not to talk about.  Read the guide to find out more about this topic.

What was weird was how the paintings became more real the greater the distance I put between myself and the painting.

Room 10: Abstraction in the 1990s - Guide

There's a detailed description of how the abstract squeegee paintings are made in this Guide.  To be honest the documentary video I watched while sat in a viewing room at Christies back in the Autumn was much more illuminating.  Once seen never forgotten!

This was the abstract painting I liked the best.  It's a squeegee oil painting on aluminium. Click the link and scroll down - as you can see it's been to a fair few exhibitions!  It's also got quite a following in the exhibition shop!  

Reader is stunning.
Reader 1994 deliberately echoes Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window 1657-9, which he knew from his youth in Dresden. While Vermeer’s figure peruses a secret letter in daylight, Richter’s young wife Sabine Moritz looks at a news magazine in artificial light. Yet this is undoubtedly one of Richter’s most intimate and tender paintings.

[You can see more drawings on his website]

Room 12: The limitations of vision - Guide

I liked 6 panes of glass (although a bit of me became absorbed with the mechanics of transport and reconstruction of this piece).  The trick seemed to be to stand off to one side and look at it at 45% at which point people were reflected in a blurred way.

Room 13: 2001 and beyond - Guide
Richter was en route to New York on 11 September 2001 when his plane was diverted to Canada.
September is the painting he made after 9/11.

This room contained a squeegee painting which I think I saw being made in the film.  There again he seems to have made quite a few white paintings.  Having watched him the film one can't help think white is the paint which is applied to a painting which hasn't worked out as he'd hoped

Room 14: Cage - Guide
Richter’s monumental Cage paintings were completed in 2006 and first exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Like his earlier squeegee abstractions, they are the outcome of several layers of painting and erasure.
The last room was outside the exhibition - hence the photos (they only wanted me to refrain from using flash which is not difficult when using a smartphone!)

They're named after John Cage whose music he was listening to when he created them.
Richter was listening to the music of John Cage while he worked on these paintings and titled them after the composer. He has long been interested in Cage’s ideas about ambient sound and silence, and has approvingly quoted his statement ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’.
They struck me very much as Richter doing a Rothko (the Seagram Murals live most of the time in The Rothko Room at Tate Modern)

a wall in room 14
You can see more of Gerhard Richter's past exhibitions on his website - these are Richter's exhibitions in 2011.

1 comment:

  1. "They struck me very much as Richter doing a Rothko"

    I'd love you to expand on this. I see no comparison between them whatsoever? In subject, objective, technique...


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