Dialogue in the Work of Gerhard Richter


In “Semiotics for Begginers Daniel Chandler states that in order “To communicate we must utilize existing concepts and conventions. Consequently, whilst our intention to communicate and what we intend to communicate are both important to us as individuals, meaning cannot be reduced to authorial ‘intention’” (Chandler, 2) . As he argues, language is the first place where this is made clear, because in order to communicate humans must use references from the world around them, our very understanding of language is based on associations. In their work Daniel Chandler, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Julia Kristeva refer to this way in which every utterance is based on a past utterance as intertextuality. They especially emphasize the way in which the arts are in constant dialogue with previous works of art. While these authors might particularly touch upon the literary arts, the visual arts have highlighted this concept again and again through images that perhaps make it more comprehensible for human beings. It has become one of the main motifs of art history. This essay will attempt to explain how that dialogue of art with previous art is made apparent in the work of Gehrard Richter. As many of his other European contemporaries, the work of Richter was very influenced by American Pop, and particularly by the work of Andy Warhol.


Like the work of his contemporary Sigmar Polke, Richter’s work moves beyond the images of pop, in fact it often references pop in an ironical way.Nevertheless like Bakhtin and Chandler argue even to make an ironic comment upon something is to be in dialogue with it. It is based on an assimilation and understanding of the previous work which allows the artist to respond to it within his particular context. (Bakhtin,1981, 282).Richter’s dialogue with the work of Warhol is particularly apparent in his use of photography, in fact it can be said that his very use of photography departs from Warhol’s use of the mass reproduced image and his comment on the impact that it had in framing the social reality of America at the time. Warhol uses the techniques of mass reproduction to introduce the idea that photographs construct realities for us and are used by the mass media to make us consume stars as though they were the very objects of consumption that we find in our supermarkets. Meanwhile, Richter’s work is enriched by these concepts. He departs from the language that Warhol has already introduced into the world of art and already starts with the assumption that photographs are fictious and that they destroy individuality. In addition he explores these concepts using the portrait sub-genre that Warhol had previously used. Moreover, like Bakhtin argues, his dialogue with Warhol is shaped by his particular social context and thus he uses the ideas that Warhol had introduced about how the media massively reproduces images in order to allow us to deal with tragedy and consume, as a way to introduce the weighty images of German history to his public in a way that allows this public to deal with the images while at the same time confronting that history.

The essay thus uses the theories of intertextuality and dialogism which appear in the works of Chandler, Kristeva, and Bakhtin in order to understand this dialogue with the work of Warhol which is apparent in Richter’s work. It then relies in the works of Lawrence Alloway,Benjamin Buchloch, Alex Danchev, and Michael Leight to explore how Richter’s ideas about the mass reproduced images are in dialogue with Warhol’s established ideas, the thematics that the two artists use in these photography pictures, and the ways in which Richter’s social context lead him to this recurrent tragic history thematic. It explores the recurrent portrait and modified tragic images of Warhol and Richter, as well as how these works demonstrate thei dialogue, through the works of Joseph Honnef, Foster Hall, Paul Bergin,Nicholas Baume, Gertrud Koch, Benjamin Buchloch, and Alex Danchev.

Theoretical Background- Intertextuality and Dialogism

The theories of Daniel Chandler, Mikahl Bakhtin, and Julia Kristeva help illustrate this dialogue that takes place between the ideas and themes portrayed in Richter’s art and the work of Warhol. In his article “Semiotics for Begginers: Intertextuality”, Chandler introduces the concepts of intertextuality, dialogism, and transtextuality relaying in the works of authors like Kristeva, Bakhtin, Barthes and Gennette. Since, like previously stated, he says that in order to communicate we need to relay in already made utterances, he argues that therefore any “‘text is a tissue of quotations.. [and that] The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’”(Chandler, 2). This same concept was previously explored by Bakhtin in “Discourse and the Novel”. In this essay, he argues that: “every extra-artistic prose discourse- in any of its forms, quotations, rhetorical, scholarly- cannot fail to oriented toward the already uttered’ the ‘already known’” adding that “On all its various routes toward the object, in all its directions, the word encounters an alien word and can not help encountering it in a living, tension-filled interaction” (Bakhtin, 1981, 279).


Kristeva, who relies on the work of Bakhtin in her essay “Word Dialogue and the Novel” uses this same idea to introduce the concept of the different layers of dialogue that take place in respect to a work. She sees the ‘literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning), as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee ( or the character) and the contemporary or earlier cultural context”(Kristeva, 1941, 36). She says that it cans thus be argued that dialogue takes place at two different planes, a horizontal plane and a vertical plane: “The word’s status is thus defined horizontally (the word in the text belongs to both writing subject and addressee) as well as vertically ( the word in the text is oriented towards an anterior or sinchronic literary corpus)”(Kristeva, 1941, 36). This concept can be furthered understood by going back to Bakhtin’s “Discourse and the Novel”. Bakhtin argues that every reading of a work is done within a context, that : “the internal politics of style ( how the elements are put together) is determined by its external politics (its relationship to alien discourse). Discourse lives, as it were on the boundary between its own context and another, alien context”(Bakhtin, 1981, 284). This can be summarized and simplified through Chandler’s statement that “‘All literary works.. are ‘rewritten’, if only consciously, by the societies which read them’”(Chandler, 4). According to Bakhtin, this is what constitutes an active understanding of the previous word and what allows the author to modify and respond to the previous word according to his own context, but furthermore what allows him to modify the previous utterance according to the listener towards which he is directing his new word: “Thus an active understanding, one that assimilates the word under consideration into a new conceptual system, that of the one striving to understand, establishes a series of complex inter-relationships, consonances and dissonances with the word and enriches it with new elements. It is precisely such an understanding that the speaker counts on. Therefore his orientation toward the listener is an orientation toward a specific conceptual horizon, toward the specific world of the listener”( Bakhtin, 1981,282). This concept is particularly important for Richter, who believes that" the quintessential task of every painter in any time has been to concentrate on the essential" (Leight, 1) And who like the rest of the generation of post World War II artists is faced with the challenge of how to discuss a history that is unnamable that burdened every generation with the guilt of their recent past.

An active Assimilation
Warhol- Situated in its Time
“According to the L.A’s Museum of modern art “Pop art was simultaneously a celebration of postwar consumerism and a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Rejecting the Abstract Expressionist artist’s heroic personal stance and the spiritual or psychological content of his work, Pop artists took a more playful and ironic approach to art and life”(“Pop Art”). . For them this kind of spiritual art, whose language is so different from the language of the masses is not longer capable of reflecting current reality. But rather as Alloway notes their art, which seeks to nurture itself from life and from the images which have defined the reality of what it is to live in a post-industrialized society, relies on the images of the mass-culture which permeated their current American society. For them art is no longer considered to be isolated from mass culture, but rather becomes part of the processes of endless reproduction of mass culture’s imagery, mass culture itself is considered art: __“The mass media were entering the work of art and the whole environment was being regarded, reciprocally, by the artists as art, too”.__ Warhol’s work thus reflects two themes that correspond to the themes that emerged in mass culture: “the repetitive and overlapping struture of modern entertainment”(Alloway, 1),promoted by the mass media and the “democratization of taste” and those objects that were representative of both American popular culture and of the American society itself were everyone from the president to the worker that labors in the fields consumes some of the same goods in their daily life.


Photography- Portraying the Social Reality of America

Moreover he recognized that these objects that where massively reproduced by the media where just as part of the daily life of the Americans as where the cokes that they consumed every day. In objects, such as the newspaper and magazines pictures that Americans consumed on a daily basis he thus found the tool to reflect that society that he longer found in abstract expressionism. Photography as well as the silkscreen processes that allowed them to be massively reproduced, thus became some of Warhol's major mechanisms used to portray the society in which he lived. As Honnef notes:

“ When Warhol realized that a mass-produced picture or a product of day-to-day life could be construed as containing those elements which would allow him to turn it into a mirror of the collective consciousness, he reacted decisively- for not every picture or product typifies the spirit of its age and thus allows it to become an object of artistic value”(Honnef, 2007, 50). The mass produced photographs emerged as the perfect motif for the society of mass consumption, for the American’s habits of consumption, and for the pervasiveness of the mass media as well as its influence upon society. Warhol recognized that the news-clip or magazine photograph was assume to have an authenticity that made it more powerful to induce belief as well as consumption than any other advertisement. Warhol was hence drawn to photography due to the particularly determining role that it had in shaping people’s perception of reality, or as Honef notes of shaping what represented the core of American society. He was aware of the way in which the photograph is usually granted authenticity, but also of the way in which the mass media, and advertising were spreading ‘truths’ through the photograph whose reliability could be questioned. Thus he chooses to explore how the “photograph filters reality, changing the material penetrating through its grids by imprinting on it its own pattern of perception”(Honnef, 2007, 46).

He explores the many powers that the mass reproduced photograph had in its society as well as the new objects of consumption that these photographs create. In the first place, he creates celebrity portraits where the silkscreen processes prevent the audience from seeing all the facial structures that characterize a person, while highlight features like the eyes an mouth in a mask like way (Baume, 2000, 89) in order to expose the way in which the portrayal of stars in the mass media detached them from their individuality, creating images which were assumed to be truths and were available for consumption like a ready made object. He also exposes the way in which they were able to convert tragedy and death into an object of consumption through the reproduction of these images, which made it easier for a detached audience to consume them. Yet the very fact that he chooses to apply the same techniques as the media to reproduce the images, as well as the treatment that he gives his images make it seem as though he is not trying to be complicity in this system, but rather as Foster notes: “to expose it” (Foster, 1996, 41).


Richter- Context and his 2 Axis of Dialogie

Meanwhile, Richter initially identified himself with the Capitalist Realist movement, a movement that was influenced by both post-expressionism and pop art, but that initially rose more as an ironical response to both the Soviet Socialist Realism and to American Pop. His work is very historically centered in post War Germany and as opposed to pop it is highly political. However as Chandler notes, even this transformation of Warhol’s work already signifies that there is intertextuality at play, and could be classified under ‘transtextuality’, which is essentially a “more inclusive term than ‘intertextuality’” (Chandler, 8). This transformation and initial irony toward Warhol’s work would be labelled by Chandler as a form of Hypotextuality, “the relation between a text and a preceding ‘hypotext’- a text or genre on which it is based but which it transforms, modifies, elaborates or extends (including parody, spoof, sequel, translation)”(Chandler, 9). He emerges in another social and historical context which demands other responses from him and requires other tools to reach his listener. As Danto notes, “just like Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era conscious of itself through his art..German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have the treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in post-war Germany, was part of the burden of being a German artist of the time and this had no analogy anywhere else in the West”(Danto, 1). Moreover Danto notes that, like Warhol most notoriously did through his death series images, when dealing with these images of history he also “evolved a kind of self-protective cool that ennabled him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a distance”(Danto, 1). This History after all, was very much part of his own life.

Hittler came to power when Richter was a child. His father, horst Richter, was converted into “a member of the Nazi Party”( Leight, 11).once Hittler raised to power, and was taken as a prisoner by the Americans later on in the war. Although he was later released, because of the stigma of being a former Nazi, it was hard for him to get a job once more when he came back. Moreover while Richter lived in Dresden “Allied Bombers unleashed a firestorm over Dresden that ranks as the most devastating aerial assault in history prior to the first use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year””(Leight, 12).Moreover his uncle, who was also a Nazi, got killed in battle and one of his cousins, a mentally challenged girl, was killed in the Nazi’s ‘euthanasia’ program. Undoubtedly all of this had an impact in the artist and contributes to the way in which he has choosen to deal with this history. However while he deals with these different thematics, Richter's use of photography demonstrates a deeper dialogue with Warhol's mechanisms and genres, than just a detached ironical comment would. His ideas depart from the ideas that Warhol has already explored, although modifying them or going beyond them. He is no longer concerned with the way in which photographs are “distributed as truths”, but departs from the fact that there is a “crisis of photography”(Koch, 38, 2009), just as there once was a crisis in naturalist portrait painting. Photography, he says, “is a field that has meanwhile forfeited its privileged access to the object world of physical reality”. Hence: “he no more trusts technology to aid in achieving a better position from which to view the world than he does painterly techniques. He simply places both on the same level” (Buchloh, 38, 2009). But in order to make this statement he must depart from what was already made explicit by Warhol. Thus his text continues to exemplify this concept of intertextuality as “the absorbtion and transformation of another.”(Kristeva, 1941, 37). Moreover, although concerned with different subjects, he uses some of Warhol’s sub genres to deal with them, using both portraits and the death series/traumatic series. He also uses Warhol's method of mass reproduction to achieve a de-individualization as well as the blurring of the photograph to achieve the distance that Warhol achieved through mass reproduction. He himself has recognized this relationship with the work of Warhol:
"For me it was obvious that I had to wipe out the details. I was happy to have a method that was rather mechanical. In that regard I owe something to Warhol. He legitimized the mechanical. He showed me how it is done. It is a normal state of working, to eliminate things. but Warhol showed me this modern way of letting details disappear, or at least he validated its possiblities. He did it with silkscreening and photography, and I did it through mehanical wiping. It was a very liberating act." ( Leight, 6). Thus as Bakhatin argues, his work demonstrates an active assimilation of Warhol’s work: “it assimilates the word to be understood into its own conceptual system filled with specific objects and emotional expressions”(Bakhatin, 1981, 282).

The Work- Dialogism in the Methods and Sub-Genres
Warhol’s Portraits:
Like Nicholas Baume notes when Warhol decides to portray the consumption of celebrity figures through mass media imagery through his use of portraits, he is making this comment based on an assumed previous understanding of the humanist portrait tradition. Hence he is also in dialogue with this previous genre and with its traditional aim “of capturing a faithful physical resemblance and providing psychological insight.”(Baume, 2000, 89). His work seeks to contrast with the traditional notion of the portrait in order to highlight how the mass reproduced image actually reduces the individuality of the artist, and hence rather than presenting the audience the real persona it presents them the mass object, which is has created for them to consume. As Baume notes “ Warhol would exaggerate contrasts of light and dark so that details vanished and outlines were accentuated. He made his portraits of the 1970’s and 1980s using a Polaroid “Big Shot” camera, which produced a flattening distortion of the visual field”(Baume, 2000, 89). In addition, he notes, “the use of heavy make-up for the female sitters contributed to the overall effect, which was a flat pictorial space in which the hair, eyes, mouth are prominent” (Baume, 2000, 89). His portrait of Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most recognized works in which he portrays this techniques. His use of the black silks screen diffuses her features and choice to highlight only the mouth ( in the same color as the background) and the eyes, creates this flat effect that Baume mentions. Moreover, the prominence that this highlighting gives to her eyes and mouth and the thick boundaries of her face, create a mask-like aritificial effect that like Honef argues not merely questions whether the portrait is able to capture the individual, but reminds the audience that the photograph of the artist is not the real thing, it questions this validity that society has given to the image. “He transformed stereotype photographic portraits, which merely simulated individuality, into radiant icons of a godless age, separating the portrait itself from its model and turning it into a mask behind which the longings and fears of the collective could hide” (Honnef, 2000, 58).


Like Honnef argues, because of the validity that people give to the image and because it is believed that portraits are able to reflect the inner character of the people “the visual image, the picture people are given, becomes more real than the reality. People adjust their outer appearance and their inner vision of themselves to these images”(Honnef, 2000, 61). Thus the effects of the mass reproduced image of the star are not limited to leisure of the people, for the star itself living with this image, having to constantly replicate the false image that has been created regardless of his or her own desires and personality can have weighty, effects. It can produce a sence of entrapment which is hard to deal with. Warhol’s pictures of Marylin Monroe emerge as good example to demonstrate the tragic effect that this can have on the artist. Like Honef explains, the images which Warhol produced of Marylin Monroe were done after she was already dead and thus form part of his “death collection”. Thus they seem to remind us how Marylin herself spend her life trying to fight that sexual object image that the media created of her, while at the same time repetitively having to recreate it for the jobs that cast her for this image. In works like Marilyn Diptych he not merely questions creates this mask-like effect through his use of the screen process and selective use of color, but he mass reproduces the photograph, thus at once detaching us from the tragedy and forcing us to deal with how her reduction to a trademark weighted upon her and was involved in this very tragedy.

Warhol-Death Series

According to Foster this technique of mass reproduction is something that Warhol continues to use in his Death Series in order to both expose society’s “complacent consumption” through “the brutal fact” of accident and mortality” (Foster, 1996, 39) and to “ de-symbolize the object, to release the image from deep meaning... into simulacra surface” (Foster, 1996, 38), so that the audience is enabled to somehow face the tragedy through this mass reproduction. This author argues that Warhol’s work departs from the fact that he recognizes himself as a consumer of mass reproduced images and thus that he uses the same mechanisms of this society to “expose” its means: “If you enter it totally you might expose it, that is you might reveal its automatism, even its autism, through your own excessive example” (Foster, 1996, 41). On the other hand he also points out that Warhol might be using this mass repetition to come to terms with this image himself. This refers back to the “self-protective cool” that Danto refers to. It is this repetition that allows him to deal with his own shock as well: “reality multiplied a hundredfold and presented in precise form losses its terror and hence can be consumed by the masses”(Honnef, 2007, 46). This use of repetition which at once detaches the audience and repackages the image for them in a way in which they can deal with is is Apparent in Warhol's works such Green Car Crash. Foster argues that the fact that Warhol is forced to recur to this repetition in order to be able to portray images like this one, already points out that the has image caused trauma, a trauma that must be shielded. According to Foster this is where the “rupture” is produced. Both Richter and Warhol, he argues achieve this through their treatment of the images.


Richter’s Work- Dialogue at the Vertical and Horizontal Axis

In dealing with his main historic concern Richter engages in a dialogue with the work of Warhol in multiple levels. He relies on both his subgenres of the portrait and his images of death that have been treated in such a way that they both make the readers confront tragedy and provide them with a way to be able to cope with it.
In Atlas for instance Richter provides the audience with the images of the great figures of the century. Contrary to Warhol’s portraits, these portraits appear to be copied straight out of the encyclopedia and their features haven’t been blurred. Nevertheless, he also chooses to use portraits because they can be traced back to the humanist portrait tradition and thus taken to symbolize the psychological traits of the person they depict. This also allows him to challenge the individuality assigned to portraits through his management of the images. Instead of using the silkscreen process to disrupt the portraits’ portrayal of the individual’s features, he uses Warhol’s concept of mass repetition to do this. For instance, it is by placing the portraits side by side in 48 Portrait in a serialized way, that he seeks to release these portraits of their individuality: In 48 Portraits “ The serial nature of display gives the portraits a kind of anonymity. It is not the individual person that attracts attention; rather, the portraits have become part of an accumulation that can be tested in terms of its seriality”(Boch, 2009, 40) According to Boch, while Richter rejects the photograph as valid, he “does in fact value one aspect of photography that is inextricably bound up with the mechanical reproducibility that is crucial for Benjamin’s discussion of the destruction of aura. The cold anonymity of the purposely private photographs in Atlas, the serialization of nature which extinguishes the aura of the sublime condensed in the image of nature” (Boch, 2009, 39). By placing them together in such a way, he manages to blur their individual features, whatever aspects which allows us to recognize them as the figures they were and thus he questions the validity of the portrait as portraying the real. What’s interesting is that in Atlas, the same exposition where he presents the 48 portraits that might appear be taken out of an encyclopedia, he also introduces images of the holocaust, serializing them in the same way, placing them in walls that contain many other pictures which often juxtapose with them. As Buchloch argues, however, this might be his way of depicting “the conflict between constructing historical memory and the inadequacy of means to do so”(Buchloc, 2009, 74), for these are images that must be dealt with but not forgotten.


In most of this tragic/death series, however Richter still uses his treatment of the image in order to come up with a way to make people deal with the traumatic history in a way in which they candle to do so, with out rendering them to a mass produced object. This is apparent in both: the periods he waits before exposing his tragic images and in his metaphor of the blur. In the Bader Meinhof images of his October 18 1977, for instance he waited 10 years after the event to work on his images (Danchev, 2010, 98). Just as in Atlas he touches the subject of how to deal with German’s traumatic history through the cold juxtaposition of the Holocaust images , in October 18 1977, he does this through the blur. It is in this blur that Foster says this image manages to rupture, by taking the audience back to the drama that requires this blur.(Foster, 1996, 43). Thus he argues that although, like Warhol does in his death series, he is making them tolerable, he is still able to make the people go back to confront the trauma and thus making them able to deal with that history that German authors must strive to deal with. Thus he is still in dialogue with Warhol in a vertical axis, while dialoging with the reader in his historical context in a horizontal axis. In trying to deal with the many contradictions of his time through Warhol’s work he demonstrates how “ at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-logical contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between.. tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given a bodily form”(Bakhtin, 1981, 291).


This essay, tries to demonstrate that although Richter’s work is situated in his particular context, it establishes a dialogue with Warhol’s genres, and mechanisms in order to do what he feels, every artist must do, depict the essential. While his work makes explicit the problem of dealing with German history, he also struggles to create a way to allow people to face those images of their traumatic history.

Works Cited

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