Gerhard Richter: Panorama, a comprehensive retrospective of Germany’s greatest living artist at the Neue Nationalgalerie near Potsdamer Platz, is awe inspiring.
Around 130 paintings and five sculptures, made between 1962 and 2011, are exhibited in the light, open space of the upper floor of the gallery. The work is displayed chronologically, although there is no strict path from one painting to another, leaving one free to zig-zag between them, presenting figurative paintings next to abstracts, seascapes alongside landscapes, his recent large-scale squeegee paintings near smaller works of acrylic on glass.
Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, where he studied wall painting at the art academy. In 1959, he visited the international art fair, documenta II, where he saw the abstract works of Pollock and Fontana. Looking back at the event, he said: “Their sheer impudence! I was deeply fascinated and moved by it. I could almost say that these pictures were the real reason why I left the GDR. I realised that something was wrong with the way I thought.”
Although Richter left the GDR in 1961, just months before the construction of the Berlin wall, he did not fall in line with the prevalent Western trends in painting, but rather started thinking about the medium of painting – a concern that has occupied his work ever since, most notably in his ‘photo paintings’, where he starts with a photographic image, mostly culled from magazines or a private albums, and transfers it, enlarged, onto canvas before smudging the oil paints while they are still wet, resulting in a blurred effect. The brushstrokes are so fine that upon first sight, you are not sure whether it is indeed a painting or a photograph. The effect makes you scrutinise the image, ache to bring it into focus and scratch beneath its surface.
In Richter’s own words, his work is an “attempt to probe the possibilities of what painting today still can achieve and may achieve.” It is a question that recurs as you experience the exhibition – down to noticing the incidental detail – a common phenomenon in galleries nowadays – of people taking photos of paintings with their iPhones or digital cameras; what is the point of taking a photograph of a painting that was based on a photograph?
Richter’s huge colourful multi-layered and textured abstract paintings make you wonder how on earth such an effect was achieved. Luckily, Corinna Belz recently made a film about his process:
The sheer diversity and number of the works on display in the exhibition demonstrate just how thorough Richter’s inquiry into the medium of painting has been over the last five decades and is well worth seeing.