They’re so small you might not notice them. Sitting side by side on a white wall in Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art are panels of photographs cut out of magazines. One shows graphic porn. The other, the death camps.
They are part of Gerhard Richter’s magnum opus Atlas, a collection of some 800 images taken from 1962 onwards – carefully placed together in sets like an old-world Instagram – roughly half of which line a cavernous room in GOMA
That Richter became the world’s most expensive living painter in 2015, following the sale of his work Abstraktes Bild for £30.4 million, only adds to the jolt of seeing such a casual marriage of giddy sex and its nemesis, obliteration.
And yet death and life resonate throughout the artist’s first major survey in Australia, Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images. There’s the luminous, brilliant power of flesh in his nudes and the verdant green landscapes of Germany. Pitted against these are eerie depictions of skulls, fighter planes hurtling through the sky, and, of course, the Holocaust.
Richter, now 85, grew up playing in the forests of East Germany near Dresden as the country waged war under Hitler. As a teenager, after the Nazis had been toppled, he worked as a poster artist slogging out slogans for socialism and, more creatively, in a theatre illustrating scenery. In 1961 he decamped to West Berlin, months before the Berlin Wall shut off relations entirely. Since then Richter, who was trained in realist painting, has refused to be typecast, dabbling in and mastering everything from abstraction to portraiture to landscape.
‘He’s hard-working,’ says curator Rosemary Hawker, as she gives a tour of the exhibition. ‘He arrives at the studio with a coffee flask and sandwich, while everyone else would arrive at midday hung over from the day before. He never stands still: he continues to produce. There’s no sense of what he’s going to do next.’ That remains true of some of his most challenging work, in particular on the Holocaust. For most of his life Richter had shied away from the subject, feeling it too overwhelming, the grief and savagery too immense.
‘I made a few attempts… I can’t come up with a suitable form, can’t find a way of presenting it so that it’s bearable and not just spectacular,’ he admitted in an interview published in Gerhard Richter: Panorama in 2011. ‘That theme … it’s like a cudgel.’ Yet just three years later, in 2014, Richter completed his series Birkenau, four large paintings that hang in a dedicated room in GOMA. The work is based on four photographs of Crematorium V in the Polish camp taken, surreptitiously, by members of the ‘Special Squad’ – the Jews forced to clear away the dead bodies of their comrades. Smuggled out in a toothpaste tube, they show women, stripped of their clothes, being led to the gas chambers, piles of corpses behind them. Initially, Richter wanted to do the work in the manner of the photorealistic paintings he is most famous for: images traced from photographs with the pigment blurred around the edges, his trademark effect. Soon, however, it became apparent the direct gaze would be too much. Richter could only approach Birkenau by taking a bludgeon to the subject matter. Using slugs of thick maroon and grey paint, he disfigured the photographs to the point where they are unrecognisable, erasing the horror. The resulting paintings – although abstract – look wounded as if they have been scarred.
Richter has found other ways to address Germany’s history, too, at the intersection with his own family. One is his unassuming portrait of his Uncle Rudi, painted in 1965. Taken from a photograph, Uncle Rudi seems cheerful, a straight-up friendly bloke rendered in shades of grey and black. The image becomes more sinister when you realise that this man – so jauntily depicted — is wearing an SS uniform.
Next-door sits Aunt Marianne, also completed in 1965 and originally titled Woman with Child. Richter, for years, had no idea what had happened to this particular relation, who suffered schizophrenia and was institutionalised. It was only later, after the war, he discovered she was a victim of the Nazi’s eugenics program. She was starved to death.
Using paint as a form of erasure is a technique Richter has used with force. On September 11, 2001, the artist was on a flight to New York with his third wife, artist Sabine Mortiz, when the plane was diverted. The World Trade Centre had been attacked. Attempting to address such a monumental event, in 2009 he created September, a small painting consisting of whirrs of movement – representing the planes – disappearing into a billow of smoke as they make contact with the towers. Hawker sees violence in the picture. ‘He describes his sense of unease with that particular work and that it wasn’t actually resolved until he started to pull paint off the canvas,’ she says. The artist used his squeegee technique to drag and draw on the thick oil, making a once concrete image uncanny.
Scattered throughout are much smaller works, amateur snapshots that arrest the heart just as much as the larger more ambitious pieces. These photographs show normal people going about everyday activities. Richter has dragged wet paint over them, casting a literal shadow on their faces and bodies and life force. There’s something deeply sad – nostalgic even – in the images of bygone lives so obscured.
In 2011, in the same interview in which he discussed the Holocaust, Richter was asked what is the purpose of art. He answered: ‘For surviving this world. One of many, many… like bread, like love…’ In a conversation with Robert Storr, then senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1996, he had gone further still. ‘Painting is the only positive thing I have. Even if I see everything else negatively, at least in the pictures I can communicate some kind of hope. I can at least carry on.’
Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images is showing at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until February 4, 2018