Art

The techno-fascism of Nazi Germany and the West’s postwar mass consumerism have been the subject of painter Gerhard Richter’s decades-long career, whether in photorealism or abstraction. By Patrick Hartigan.

Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images

Gerhard Richter's Uncle Rudi (1965)
Credit: Gerhard Richter 2017

In 1944 Gerhard Richter’s uncle, a Nazi soldier fighting in the Second World War, was killed on the Western Front in France. Painted many years later, Uncle Rudi (1965) – included in the exhibition Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images, curated by Rosemary Hawker and Geraldine Barlow, at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane – remains one of Richter’s most memorable works.

Executed in black and white, its content slightly out of focus, Uncle Rudi is an excellent example of the photorealism for which the artist is probably best known. That is to say it was painted in a manner that sought to imitate and bring attention to the mimetic specificities of its photographic source. Humbly scaled at about the size of a 15th-century Flemish panel painting, or a couple of oversized art monographs, it shows a soldier dressed in SS regalia, standing and smiling before a camera. There’s a hint of love in this picture, the way its side-to-side strokes effectively embalm a once idolised family figure, but it’s thoroughly complicated by that uniform and cooled by the filter of its device.

The war, for Richter, is a ghost that never entirely leaves the room. This is perhaps unsurprising, given he was born into and directly involved in that event: his father, Horst, and his uncle Rudi both fought in the war, while Richter was conscripted as a 10-year-old into the Pimpfe, or German Youngsters, in the Hitler Youth. But it’s an event leading up to that war that I think is more pertinent here.

A year after Richter was born in Dresden, Hitler came to power and conducted a national census. Enabled by newly developed data-gathering technologies –namely punch cards and tabulating machines, rented to the Nazis by the company IBM – this was like no other census before it. Technology provided an extremely efficient means to isolate, then exterminate, certain types: Jews, Romanies, the mentally and physically disabled, and the politically undesirable. It’s that dynamic, between data and violence, technology and the apparatus of power, that points to the most compelling and sustaining aspect of Richter’s work.

 

Considered as a whole, Richter’s output shows an artist wary of the passion and self-identification that had fuelled Nazi Germany. At a time when many artists moved away from painting, Richter remained faithful but brought to that process the cool and steady temperament of scientific method. The procedures he employed to analyse painting’s place in a radically changing set of visual and technological circumstances included photographic realism, squeegee-inflicted abstraction, monochromes and colour charts.

Richter began a career now spanning nearly 60 years in Dusseldorf, having fled the Communist East just prior to the Berlin Wall being erected. Echoing Pop Art in New York, he responded to an image culture already closely entwining with business and mass consumption, referring to what he and his peers were engaging in as “Capitalistic Realism”. Folding Dryer (1962), a loosely photographic work depicting a female figure hanging clothing, presents a section of advertisement from a newspaper or magazine. An assortment of other subjects, including a puppy, some celebrities and a very out-of-focus pyramid, hang in the same room.

The internet was still a long way from general use when Richter painted these works and yet they speak, as a group, to a future engineered and dominated by the all-powerful likes of Google and Facebook. Heightening the sense of compression and clairvoyance in this room is Townscape Paris (1968), a square work of loose though no less mechanical brushstrokes offering a raised viewpoint predicting satellite abstraction and talking directly to cultures of hyper-surveillance. It’s a painting that also demonstrates how closely cities resemble computer motherboards.

For Richter, the subject or genre was less important than the process and source; advertisements, reportage and amateur photography all spoke directly to painting history while allowing certain artistic judgements and acts to be overcome. The brush was a tool to imitate rather than contradict or compete with a culture in which pictures were ready-made and everywhere.

 

Along the same wall as Uncle Rudi, a couple of rooms away, a large painting titled Grey (1976) compresses black and white history into a matt monochrome. The colour and scale carries the memory of that uniform, and the homogenising, flattening and obliterating endeavours of the Nazis generally, while linking this work to its own photographic reference by way of grey cards – the painted piece of cardboard that once allowed analog photographers to produce consistent image exposures. This signifies one end of an oeuvre always moving between the visual and purely material, frontal and essential, self-referential and meta-statistical.

Something of the aggregate of Richter’s art empire – the capitalism he once critiqued has led to him becoming one of the wealthiest people in Germany – can be gleaned from Atlas, an ongoing photographic archive relating to the artist’s output and life. Neatly set out in a grid and taking up roughly a third of this exhibition, it includes photos of Richter House and its surrounds, “mother and child” studies of his wife feeding their baby, layouts for books, groupings of flowers, cities, clouds and terrorists. In the opening pages, a disturbing, if visually sensible, progression occurs between concentration camp victims and pornography. It was while soaking in these reams of pictorial data that I got thinking about the Nazi fetish for documentation and quantification – those punch cards – as well as Facebook.

The way the images are laid out in a grid, somewhat like tiles, echoes Richter’s colour chart works, of which there are reproduced examples in Atlas but sadly no actual examples in this exhibition. That component of Richter’s work adopts both chance and complex numbering systems to develop works that resemble swatch displays in hardware stores. In a sense, it provides the bonding agent in a practice always moving between imagistic representation and raw data.

The abstract examples executed with Richter’s trademark squeegee are plentiful on the other hand. A squeegee is a scraping implement, traditionally used for cleaning windows and scraping water out of photographic prints. Here it is employed to drag, tear and lance open layers of paint and pigment on the canvas. In the best cases this process of layering and compressing has the paint baking, fermenting and breathing like compost.

Operating along strictly horizontal and vertical axes, these works often press forward – beyond a decisive, mechanical gesture that recalls the illuminating light of photocopy machines and swipe-card technology – with the optics of Impressionism. They find precedent in the build-up and evolution of a movement intent on wresting painting from its blind faith in representation: the palette knife and monumental ocean scenes of Gustave Courbet and J. M. W. Turner come to mind, while Shine (1994) recalls the mute river scenes of Whistler, and Abstract Painting (725-5) (1990) the effervescent reflections of Monet’s waterlilies. In a kind of post-post-Impressionism, these works deliver a form of representation and encryption that pushes detail just beyond human sensory capability.

The recent four-panel Birkenau (2014), referring to a subsection of Auschwitz and showing a dark rock face of greens, reds and pinks, brings Impressionism face to face with death and destruction. With more frenzied slashes and cuts there remains no emotion, only the numbing aftermath of that event and the need for a structure and process through which to get at it. The idea of this work is more interesting than the result; somehow Birkenau, as a proposition, feels too stitched-up and lacks the material intensity found in examples nearby. The red is a touch too raspberry for genocide.

Perhaps this indicates an incumbent king in decline. What had been Richter’s determination to bring clarity and sobriety to a painting history inextricably linked to tech-enabled genocide starts to look complacent and too convinced of its own agenda. And yet this artist continues to occupy a special place in recent painting history, having perhaps more convincingly than any other painter ushered in the thoroughly different set of conditions we now try, with tremendous difficulty, to see and understand.

 

Arts Diary

MUSIC Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: Noël! Noël!

Melbourne Recital Centre, December 9

City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 13 and 16

VISUAL ART I Don’t Want To Be There When It Happens

Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, until December 24

BALLET Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, until December 22

VISUAL ART Balnhdhurr: A Lasting Impression

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until March 12

CINEMA Essential Anime

Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, December 14-22

INSTALLATION The Pool

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, December 3

Last chance

THEATRE Kate Tempest: Wasted

Factory Theatre, Sydney, until December 9

THEATRE desert, 6:29pm

Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, until December 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "Richter scale". Subscribe here.

Patrick Hartigan
is a Sydney-based artist.