Published  18/12/2008

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

The Scottish National Gallery complex on The Mound
8 November 2008-4 January 2009

The paintings of Gerhard Richter were first exhibited in Britain as part of the official 1970 Edinburgh International Festival's exhibition programme. The exhibition was presented by the Demarco Gallery and the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and has since become one of the highlights of the 62-year-old history of the Edinburgh Festival. The exhibition introduced the power of international avant-gardism, expressed through the visual arts by the artists who had forsaken the lure of New York, as the then established world capital of modern art, to set their sights on the city of Düsseldorf - the centre of a conurbation on the confluence of the Rhine and the Ruhr which included Cologne and Bonn, the political capital of West Germany.

The exhibition was given a palindromic title in the form of an artwork by the Swiss artist, Andre Tomkins. The title 'Strategy: Get Arts' expressed the spirit of Fluxus art and made it clear that the artists who gathered in and around Duesseldorf were not necessarily German but, indeed, represented international avant-gardism.

Richter was born in Dresden and, like his good friend Günther Uecker, had decided to quit the Communist world of East Germany and seek the well-nigh ideal conditions which blossomed in and around Düsseldorf in the Sixties.

It could be said that the exhibition came into being by the will of a group of artists, led by Günther Uecker, who gathered in Gerhard Richter's studio on a winter's day at the beginning of 1970. Among these artists was Blinky Palermo. They had all expressed a willingness to discover the reality of Scotland and, therefore, the world of the Celts. They pressured West German government authorities and City of Duesseldorf officials and, when Joseph Beuys joined their number, the exhibition became an inevitability. They were all delighted with the reality of Scotland, and many made site-specific artworks.

Gerhard Richter accepted my invitation to stay in my house in the centre of Edinburgh's historic new town - and on the day of his departure, 21 August 1970, he wrote in my visitor's book, 'I thank you, and I'll come back in any case'. John Leighton, Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland, quoted this statement in his speech which officially opened the most comprehensive exhibition of Gerhard Richter's work ever presented in the UK. Gerhard Richter had indeed 'come back' as he had promised to give Edinburgh gallery goers an exhibition which is an artwork in itself, indeed a 'Gesamptkunstwerk'.

The Gerhard Richter exhibition is rather blandly entitled 'Paintings from Private Collections'. However, it shows that Richter's work has attracted the most sophisticated art patrons from both the private and public sectors.

His life-long and self-appointed task, questioning the role of the contemporary artist though the medium of painting, deserves serious consideration in the world of art education. Through his single-minded and sustained effort, we can begin to make sense of post-Second World War history, as well as the recent developments in the history of art, and therefore comprehend the reasons for the debasement of art made manifest by all too many artists seemingly incapable of asking themselves the profound questions which are inherent in all the 60 works on exhibition, arranged thematically underlying Richter's serious commitment to the act of painting.

Gerhard Richter is now regarded as one of the major artists dominating the history of art over the past five decades. The exhibition is the second instalment in the Bank of Scotland Total Art Series which last year gave Scotland's gallery goers the large-scale Andy Warhol exhibition, which took up every available room in The Scottish National Gallery complex on The Mound in Edinburgh. The Richter exhibition occupies all the rooms on the top floor of the complex, and those responsible for its installation must be congratulated for their placing of every artwork. The Bank of Scotland invested £400,000 in both exhibitions to ensure that the experience of international modern art reaches a wide audience in Scotland.

The Warhol exhibition attracted almost 100,000 visitors. The Richter exhibition surely deserves such proof of public support, because, like Warhol, Richter has the power to alter the course of modern art with a deep questioning of its function and purpose. Unlike Warhol, Richter is still alive and working with his customary energy. He was born near Dresden in 1932 and, despite his advancing years, he is still possessed of his customary energy. It is clear from this exhibition that he is in prime form.

Richter is a master technician, and a maker of exquisitely beautiful paintings, whether figurative or abstract. The exhibition gives a perfect quintessential insight into the workings of Richter's mind and his capacity to question his role as a painter, dating from the early 1960s up until the first decade of the 21st century. Virtually every development in his career is outlined.

The exhibition has been co-organised with the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden Baden, the Albertina in Vienna and the MKM Museum Küppersmuhle für Moderne Kunst in Duisberg. It has come into being due to the generosity of five private collectors, which altogether provide a dazzling range of paintings expressing the genius of Richter's work.

In addition, another group of paintings has been added from 'The Artist Rooms Collection' recently acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Modern from Anthony d'Offay.

These works can be seen for the first time. There is an extensive education programme geared towards art students, who should be encouraged to experience what is most surely a unique expression of the role of an artist who has infused the art of painting with invigorating energy in an age when it has been downgraded and disregarded in the name of misguided concepts of art education. No student of art can afford to miss this exhibition nor, indeed, can anyone who is involved in art teaching. They should contemplate Richter's credo 'to show in order to not show, or perhaps to show something else'. This suggests that he rejects any aesthetic pretension which would allow him to impose his personal vision through his artworks.

The exhibition provides ample proof that he has never stopped experimenting, and that his changes of style state clearly that he does not 'make art' from an easily accepted standpoint.

The 184 page catalogue published by the Scottish National Gallery is well worth acquiring for the essay by Gotz Adriani entitled 'On the desire to paint something beautiful', and Dieter Schwarz's essay 'Regarding Gerhard Richter's paintings'. These essays, together with Richter's own thoughts expressed in his writings, reveal Richter's keen intelligence and how it is well able to offer an alternative to the confused and debilitating message associated with an art world almost wholly given over to the spirit of materialism.

Richter once wrote 'I hold Beuys in high esteem, and with him all those things that his name stands for: humanity, art, intelligence, courage and love'. I do believe, on the evidence of this exhibition, that these words could be applied to Gerhard Richter himself.

From the desk where you gain entry to the exhibition, you are advised to follow the signs indicated by black arrows. They will firmly guide you through eight high-ceilinged rooms. The first room focuses on '1962-65 Photo-paintings (One)'. Here you see Richter's efforts to steer himself clear of a path where there was danger of him being stereotyped by his own personal style in the early Sixties. There are paintings inspired by the Italian Futurists. They emphasise the age of speed made manifest in the shape of Italian motorcars, and British and American fighter planes.

The painting entitled 'Party' dominates the room because it consists not just of paint but of nails, cord and newspaper on canvas. There are cuts and stab marks crudely stitched together to emphasise the violence inherent in its subject matter.

This 1963 painting is, at first glance, about revellers from Bavarian television expressing the mood of West Germans celebrating their post-war economic miracle. Look more closely and you see that the red wine they are drinking is blood, and the host has the look of a vampire with blood dripping from his mouth. This painting is in protest against the carefree, hedonistic generation of Germans who all too quickly and conveniently chose to erase memories of the Second World War.

The paintings of Fiats and Alfa Romeo cars express their commitment to car culture and the need they felt for a speedy recovery from the tragic events which had brought the Berlin Wall into being. The paintings of British fighter planes are a grim reminder that Richter survived the horror of the air raids on Dresden.

The second room is entitled 'Photo-paintings 1968-70 (Two)'. It reveals Richter's commitment to using black and white paint or grey paint only. There is a painting which could be Dresden devastated by Allied bombers. It is in contrast to a diptych entitled 'Alps II', an oil on canvas made of expressive brush marks defining the power of cloud forms obscuring the magnitude of Alpine mountains.

In room three, entitled 'Colour paintings 1966-74, you can see the influence of American artists, Carl Andre and Sol Lewitt, as well as that of Blinky Palermo. Here you have ample evidence of his experimental ways of applying paint. You can delight in the painting entitled 'Red-Blue-Yellow-Reddish'. Here, you see the three primary colours mixed on canvas using swirling brush strokes to create entrancing rhythms of pure paint. In striking contrast, you have a work on 18 separate panels painted with lacquer paint on A Lu Dibond.

Room four takes up half of the Gallery's sculpture court and is entitled 'Photo-Paintings 1968-75'. It contains portraits of Gilbert and George - in Cubist-inspired compositions. There is a seascape - originating from two separate photographic images unified by the horizon line.

Room five is entitled 'Abstract paintings and candles 1981-89'. There, you can enjoy the contrast between the large-scale abstract paintings made with a combination of a squeegee and brush marks. These are contrasted with a row of still-life paintings whose subject matter consists of candles and skulls as 'memento mori' symbolism. They are to be enjoyed as sublimely beautiful figurative paintings in the classical tradition reminiscent of Georges de la Tour.

I was particularly impressed by the paintings of townscapes of Venice and Krenz, as images daring to mix pure abstraction with reality. These are in dramatic contrast to a large-scale squeegee painting of Mount Etna at a moment of violent volcanic eruption.

The sixth stage of the exhibition is in the main room of the National Gallery. It is entitled 'Abstract paintings 1988-94 together with mirror and glass works'. Again, you wonder at Richter's dexterity in the use of squeegee on large-scale canvases. I was most inspired by a diptych entitled 'Canaletto', painted in 1990, an abstracted version of Canaletto's vision of Venice. However, this room is dominated by a large-scale piece of sculpture, dated 2004, consisting of 11 thick sheets of glass. As you stand in front of them, leaning against a wall as one multi-layered mass of glass, they do not provide you with a clear unambiguous 'window on the world'. Rather, you find that you are seeing a multi-layered image, an inseparable combination of reflected and transparent views of reality.

Another work which deals with the nature of a reflected view of the world is a 1991 painting on glass in an all-over monochromatic grey - looking into this, you can see yourself as a ghostly presence; as a virtual 'will o' the wisp'.

The seventh room is entitled 'Landscapes - overpainted photos 1991-99'. This gives evidence that all Richter's paintings are about the materiality of paint and his continuing love of landscape. There is an exquisite 1994 painting entitled 'Bather': it is a portrait of his wife, Sabine, and is obviously inspired by the 19th-century neoclassical paintings of Ingres. There are three small snowscapes focused on farm buildings. In these carefully composed paintings, the trivial and non-descript nature of reality is transformed into the transcendental, particularly in the painting of a 'Squatters' House'. They should be considered along with a larger work entitled 'House in the Forest'. This shows his interest in the spirit of German Romanticism encapsulated in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. There are also two works arranged to be viewed as a series; one shows Richter in his studio. The basis of this is a triple-exposure photograph in six stages. His shadowy presence disappears gradually until it is completely covered in paint. A suite of small landscape paintings entitled 'Buhler Heights' demonstrates his sheer virtuosity as a landscape painter, giving us a lyrical view of trees on a hillside in the first stage, and transforming this theme in a style reminiscent of van Gogh, so that the paint marks gain dominance over the subject matter.

In Room eight, entitled 'Recent paintings 2002-04', you can see Richter's concern for the unseen physical laws and structures of reality. There are abstract paintings entitled 'Grey'. One is an investigation into the nature of abstract grey paint. Another is entitled 'Silicon', which is a study investigating the nature of the chemical symbol which identifies the nature of the earth's surface. There is also a grey painting inspired by a photograph taken by the German artist Casten Nicolas showing the patterns which appear on the surface of milk when exposed to certain wave frequencies.

This room is a fitting end to the exhibition as it reveals Richter as a true artist upholding the traditions originating in the Renaissance and concerned with the points of interface between art and science. With this room alone, he has given the citizens of Edinburgh much food for thought, those who proudly associate their city with the Scottish Enlightenment.

Richard Demarco

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