The Richter tale

Following the deaths of Cy Twombly, Lucian Freud and Richard Hamilton this summer, who now takes on the role, in Georges Braque’s phrase, of “guarantor of painting”? Gerhard Richter’s monumental retrospective, launched this week at Tate Modern and travelling next year in an 80th birthday celebration to Berlin then Paris, certainly makes claim in its scope and seriousness for the German artist as the grand old man of European painting.

Richter has Twombly’s sense of modernist instability and postmodern ruin – witness the fragmentary, dripping beauty of his 2006 “Cage” abstractions, with their fleeting smears and smudges of carmine or emerald piercing cool, grey-white squeegeed surfaces. But then he also has Freud’s insistent concern with figuration: “Betty” (1988), depicting his adolescent daughter turning away from him and us in a flash of self-containment and mystery, is an iconic late 20th-century portrait whose striking pose and exultant detail – twisted torso, pinned-up hair, densely textured red-white cardigan – suggest an uneasy pact between painterliness and photo-derived realism.

Resonant with love and alienation, this is the work of an autobiographical artist, you think – until in Tate’s next room you find Richter’s disconsolate grey cycle “18 October 1977”, made in the same year as “Betty” and depicting the deaths in custody of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof terrorists. This announces Richter the political painter, as innovative and controversial as Hamilton. Some Baader-Meinhof images – portraits, corpses – are depicted several times with a subtly different focus, as if casting doubt on the verity of any version of what happened to the prisoners.

This series, which Richter considered too inflammatory to remain in Europe, is visiting from its home at New York’s MoMA. Tate’s tomblike installation, and perhaps the European context, does indeed make the paintings’ effect more queasy, reinforcing their chilly detachment and philosophical questioning – of truth-telling, of art’s purposes and limitations – yet underlining, too, how strategically Richter manipulates our responses.

‘Reader’ (1994)

Richter fights German emotionalism but is sometimes himself a sentimentalist in conceptual disguise. I have always resisted his popular painting “Reader” (1994), depicting his young wife Sabine absorbed in a newspaper, for this reason; its connotation of Vermeer-like interiority, in a work in fact trumpeting the artist’s possession of his model/wife, seems to me forced. Here, however, “Reader” is shown alongside a companion, “Small Bather” (1996), where Sabine in white cap and towel steps out of the shower like a modern-day Ingres odalisque. This is so discreetly but masterfully painted that Richter suddenly resembles the most rigorous neoclassicist.

Who is this shape-shifter? Recent British exhibitions – Richter’s geometric works at the Serpentine in 2008, a National Portrait Gallery survey in 2009, Tate’s long-term “Cage” display – have focused on single aspects of his talents. Here at last is Richter in all his provocative complexity, demonstrating his horror of commitment by not only jumping genres but questioning the validity of painting. Tate’s show is a psychological battlefield where Richter argues with and against himself, flaring into brilliance only to retreat into acknowledged failure, eschewing an individual style yet producing a sustained continuum of work.

As for any great painter, that unity lies foremost in the mark-making – in Richter’s case his trademark sweeping blur, often in nuanced grey gradations as paint is dragged across surfaces to obliterate, conceal, distort, restrain. While drawing attention to the materiality of paint and also assimilating the power of newspaper photographs, the blur above all expresses moral ambiguity. “Horst with Dog” (1965) is a smudgy grey portrait of Richter’s father as a pathetic, tilted figure, his wispy hair ridiculously rhyming with the ears of the lapdog he holds – an embodiment of the morally fatherless generation in postwar Germany when Richter came of age. From the same year, “Mr Heyde” is based on a fuzzy snapshot of a recaptured Nazi war criminal. The blur of movement represents, too, the flight from facing history that characterised 1960s Germany.

The grey blur has endured – sensuously, shockingly lovely in “Cell” (1988), where the paint seems to fall like heavy rain shrouding an image of Andreas Baader’s cell; menacing in “September” (2005), whose starting point is a photograph taken when the second aeroplane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Though avoiding figuration, Richter has worked the canvas with a knife, the scrapes of paint producing marks suggestive of the destroyed aircraft.

“I blur things to make everything equally important and unimportant,” Richter says. “The meaning of life is absurd, to confer meaning is inhuman.” His magnificent 2006 abstract series is named for composer John Cage, whom Richter quotes with approval: “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.”

‘Mustang Squadron’ (1964)

Born in Dresden in 1932 and brought up under the Nazis then the communist GDR regime before fleeing west in 1961, Richter uniquely discovered a painterly language in which to embed his distrust of authority, hierarchy, fixed viewpoints. You could read most of his oeuvre as paradoxical history paintings meditating on Adorno’s question about the possibility of art after Auschwitz. Yet Richter alone of Germany’s postwar painters transcends national barriers; the future of painting as well as the ambivalence of history is his subject.

That is why his greatest works are those primarily occupied with formal issues. In the 1968 grey and white “Townscape” series, a jumble of gestural abstract marks cohere at a distance into a vision of a devastated, just discernible urban grid, referencing the destroyed city of Dresden but also the late modernist experiments, pushing figuration towards abstraction, of Matisse, Picasso, even Mondrian. “Ema (Nude on a Staircase)”, also 1968, a translucent portrait of Richter’s first wife, answers Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, boldly claiming a postmodern, photography-derived continuation of the “retinal” figurative tradition which Duchamp considered a dead end.

Not all such dealing with art history works. A reprise of a Titian is a kitsch mess that Richter calls “a record of my defeat”. The colour charts, randomly placed squares of complementary or jarring hues, typify the uninspired minimalism whose source Richter admits “always has something to do with helplessness”. Early 1980s experiments with expressiveness pushed to contrasting extremes – monumental brash abstractions such as “Yellow-green” and “Hedge” versus vanitas motifs in “Candle” and “Skull” – yield over-cerebral paintings which now look unpersuasive.

Tate’s achievement, though, is to show the arc of an exceptional career, made more comprehensible by the inclusion of some weaker work, but never descending into self-parody or repetition. Although hard to love, Richter engages immediate and long intellectual interest as an essential if nihilistic witness to an era, and an unrivalled influence on the deconstruction and reconstruction of painting in the last half-century.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Modern, London SE1, to January 8; Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, February 12-May 13; Centre Pompidou, Paris, June 6-September 24

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