Gerhard Richter


Zwei Fiat (Two Fiats) 1964 130cm x 200cm
Zwei Fiat (Two Fiats) 1964 130cm x 200cm
Schädel mit Kerze (Skull with Candle) 1983 100cm x 150cm
Schädel mit Kerze (Skull with Candle) 1983 100cm x 150cm
Abstraktes Bild 780-1 (Abstract Painting) 1992 260cm x 200cm
Abstraktes Bild 780-1 (Abstract Painting) 1992 260cm x 200cm

Gerhard Richter is without exaggeration worthy of of the cliché often attributed to him that he is one of the most intriguing painters of our era. This is not just personal opinion, but is evidenced by the rich, ongoing and extensive of theorizing about him and his paintings, even as he is still actively producing work. There books of essays, exhibition catalogs, articles, and lecture series exclusively focused on Richter's ouvre, or individual works within his ouvre. In this essay, I attempt the daunting task of contributing another drop into the ocean of discourse around Gerhard Richter's art.

Richter's ouvre is prolific, unusually diverse, and yet remarkably unified. Its diversity is evident even in the three paintings pictured above. The first is painted in black and white with what has come to be seen as a Richter trademark blur. It gets its subject matter from a piece cropped out of an advertisement photo, and emphasizes the layers of reproduction that have occurred to get to the product of the painting, in other words, the painting's distance from an unmediated reality. The second painting is done with photorealistic precision, and engages traditional iconographic tropes of a skull and a candle, which hark back to sixteenth century Dutch still life paintings and are rich with the symbolism of fleeting life and certain death. The third painting, in contrast is an abstract pattern of a wide spectrum of vibrant colors, applied to the canvas and then worked with a palette knife to create an exaggerated blurring effect. Rather than connecting us to the sixteenth century, or to photographic mediation, this painting keeps us firmly in the twentieth century, painterly realm. Nonetheless, all three paintings engage themes of mechanical reproducibility. Richter copied both the Fiats and the still life from a photograph via a measured grid. In the abstract painting, he used large brushes and the palette knife to alter the look of the paint from something applied by hand to something more mechanical. The paintings are also related to each other through their very diversity. They fit into Richter's explicit rejection of ideology, his insistence that one method does not have all the answers.

Richter, does not fit into the classical story, in which the artist passes from style to style until he or she reaches a mature method. Instead, Richter's various styles cycle back again and again; they are never closed and finished. Similarly, history and art history is never closed and finished for Richter. He is hyperaware of the past, from the genres of classical art history and the trends of modernism and postmodernism. In this essay, I look first at the role of iconography in Richter's paintings. For those works which are not completely abstract, I argue that the narrative behind the iconography actually carries a lot of meaning, at least in the way his paintings are currently displayed. I then look at how Richter fits into not just the post-war avant guarde, but a broader context of art history, as well as how he fits into his specific German historical context, particularly the German concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung or "overcoming the past". Finally, I ask how Richter has contributed to the meaning of photography, as well as to the meaning of painting.

Atlas, Sekretärin and iconographic meaning in Gerhard Richter's photopaintings

"[Painting] has nothing to do with the talent of 'making by hand', only with the capacity to see and to decide what is to be made visible." (Richter, quoted in Holm)

From February through April 2012, the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau in Gerhard Richter’s birth city of Dresden exhibited Atlas, the archive of photos, clippings, painting studies and reworkings, color chips, sketches etc. collected by the artist himself from 1962 onward. While he at first kept his collection in drawers, he later glued the pieces on paperboards and by 1972 had arrived at the title Atlas for his collection, and displayed it as a freestanding work, alongside his finished paintings. Today Atlas is 783 pages large. Its organization, framing and display for the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau exhibition followed detailed instructions from the artist himself .

In trying to grasp the meaning of Richter’s diverse ouvre, Atlas is perhaps the best place to start. Although Richter has clearly valued Atlas for its own aesthetic and communicative value at least since he first had it displayed in 1972, none of the pieces of Atlas were conceived for Atlas. They are instead part of Richter’s life-long thought process about the things that touch his life, from the familial and the deeply personal, extending out to phenomena of his society, his country, and the contemporary era. As curator of the Kunsthaus im Lipsiusbau exhibition, Dietmar Elger said, Atlas is an archive that serves as “not so much a view into the artist’s studio, as a view into the artist’s mind” (Elger video).

Richter says he did not come up with the title "Atlas" by himself; nonetheless, he kept this title and the symbolism of the word is rich in meaning. Atlas is the Greek titan who was charged with holding the sky on his shoulders. Similarly, Richter’s Atlas holds up and supports his painting work. Atlas is also the name of the top vertebrae of the spine right below the head. This image fits well with Elger’s description of Atlas as a view into the artist’s mind. We can understand the thoughts the plans and the memories in Richter’s mind gaining the additional support of being laid out and organized in Atlas. But of course, the most common meaning for the word atlas, is a book of maps, and it is this meaning that is most important in the interpretation of Richter’s Atlas.

Maps are built on a grid to make the transformation between reality and representation mathematically systematic. In Richter's Atlas, we can see a grid sketched over some of the clippings, such as the picture of the ice skaters in the upper right of the following example. Richter used the grid in his process of transforming the photograph into a painting. With the grid, his process turned into something more mechanical, an important point that I will come back to later in this essay.
Atlas Sheet 7 of 783: Newspaper photographs 1962
Atlas Sheet 7 of 783: Newspaper photographs 1962

A book of maps is meant to be an indexical and practical representation of reality. Although not instantly natural to interpret, once one has a bit of experience reading a map, the two-dimensional, birds-eye-view, highly abstract becomes a very useful way to simplify and orient reality. Traveling around in an unfamiliar land and lost? No problem, look at a map. Can Richter’s Atlas also help those who, when looking at Richter’s paintings, feel like they are in an unfamiliar land and lost? This question is intriguing, because it changes the very way Richter’s paintings may be interpreted. If Atlas serves as a guide to keep from being lost in Richter’s paintings, than the iconography of his paintings and their indexical relationship to reality, not just the surface work as some art historians have argued, is important to their meanings. Richter transforms his photographic source in making his painting; he often crops out narrative context, enlarges, blurs or otherwise manipulates the image. Because of this, the story behind the photo Richter chooses to paint remains an illusive secret. A lot is made on how decontextualized a Richter painting is. We know it comes from some sort of photographic source because of its style, but it is isolated from the original narrative context. This does not, however, seem to make the narrative context recede in importance. Viewers know that a narrative context exists, because people are used to comprehending photos, as the documentary representation of some story.
Sources for his iconography are one of the major aspects to be found in Atlas. Seeing a Richter painting, and then finding the source photo in his Atlas is like succeeding in a treasure hunt. It’s a thrilling and addictive game, and even if it leads one to an Atlas page with what seem like an arbitrary set of images, one is caught up in the thrill of playing detective. Thus, ironically, the meaning of the iconography takes on all the more importance due to its mystery.

Sekretärin (Secretary) 1963 150cm x 100cm
Sekretärin (Secretary) 1963 150cm x 100cm

The story of Richter’s painting Sekretärin, from 1963, is a good example of this treasure-hunt process. The painting is medium sized; the woman pictured smaller than life, but still large enough in scale to feel close to human. Sekretärin is, of course, not a painting of a human but of a photographic representation, clipped out of a tabloid. It is painted in shades of grey, her edges blurred like the photographer had been forced to zoom too much for a really steady picture. The figure walks purposefully to the left, but perhaps nervousness, or discomfort can be detected in the way she is wringing her hands. She is passing by an office door –it has some sort of name-plate which is not quite legible, and she is dressed, if we go by the title, like a secretary. Strips on both the left and right sides of the painting have been left unpainted, and the viewer can make out the lightest pencil lines of a grid that Richter used in his process of copying and enlarging the source photograph; Richter has left his process evident.

The story behind the secretary in the painting, so intriguingly mysterious, is in fact, easy to find. All the information the viewer needs to find out who the figure is, is usually written on the caption card hung up next to the picture in the museum. A visitor can read that the woman in this painting was the secretary and paramour of a man in Minnesota. The man killed his wife to be with her. A typical juicy tail of tabloid intrigue, and the secretary is not quite guilty (she was not the murderer) but not quite innocent either. This set-up with the mysterious painting and the clarifying caption card allows the viewer to appreciate both the deliberate obscuring of the narrative subject matter, with the consequent shift in focus toward the painting surface, the blurred style, and the painting's distance from any reality besides its existence as a painting, and at the same time the painting's paradoxically undeniable connection to an event outside of paint and canvas, and even outside of the photographic reproduction that the painting was based on. Despite much of post-modernist theory trying to tell us otherwise, painting is always inspired by, and thus remains connected to, some subject outside of itself. Imagining a narrative is still an important way viewers naturally relate to a painting. The painting is not the same as its real life subject, but it is always engaging in dialog with its subject. And Richter's paintings embrace this oxymoronic identity: they are both not about the narrative behind the subject they represent, and very much about that narrative.

Of course, this interpretation is dependent on Sekretärin being displayed, as I have always seen them displayed, with an explanatory caption card. Has this painting always been displayed this way? Or is the full experience of the contradictory connections and distances between Richter's painting and the original news story from where the iconography came unique to experiencing Richter as he is displayed in the past decade?

In a 2011 interview, before an exhibit of his work which was to include Secretary Richter himself denied that the narrative behind the iconography had any meaning to his painting.

Uwe Schneede: Did the story interest you, or was it always basically the photo?
Gerhard Richter: The story that the photo tells, certainly, not really the written one -even if I read it, I would have promptly forgotten it again.
A person has no indication of what it was really about...that was the story of a Minnesota lawyer who killed his wife for the sake of his secretary. And now you copy it, and she becomes a secretary like one in the Bundestag or some other office. One sees nothing of the story behind it.
But here again it was only the picture that struck me, not the story. It's so wonderfully arbitrary.
Is it her haste that interested you in the secretary?
That too, and her pose, the odd way she looks to the side, her conspicuous hands, the little jacket.

Even if it is the case, however, that early appearances of Sekretärin did not include such a detailed caption, or that Richter himself, as he claimed, did not know the back story when he chose his subject matter, it seems fair to say from the existence of the Atlas and its insistence on orienting Richter's work in respect to its iconography, that subject matter is important to the painting's full meaning.

Richter and the History of Germany

"The totalitarian legacy with which Richter is burdened (a legacy that ranges from his father's and his Uncle Rudi's Nazi commitment, to the East German state terrorism against the individual citizen) is his total rejection of any kind of ideology, his fundamental skepticism about all-embracing ideas that are supposed to change reality." (Tøjner)

Richter does not paint portraits that heroisize people. He avoids iconic imagery. Rather his portraits show people with an air of banality, an emphasis on their everyday humanness. In his portrait paintings, through their antiheroism, Richter often portrays a mourning over the loss of the very possibility of heros. People are just people, not fully good and not fully bad. Onkel Rudi, pictured bellow follows tropes associated with the humble family snapshot: Rudi stands centrally and stiffly, smiling at the camera. To a non-German viewer, he might appear merely sweet and sympathetic. For Richter and German viewers however, this impression is instantly complicated by the uniform he is wearing, the uniform of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the organization for perpetrating some of the most egregious crimes and murders of the Nazi period.

Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi) 1965 87cm x 50cm
Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi) 1965 87cm x 50cm

Onkel Rudi, is an example of an explicit dialog with the Nazi past. Richter was a child in the 1930s and 40s, when his father and two uncles fought for the German army in World War II. His family were also victims: an aunt was killed due to Nazi policies against the mentally ill, and his whole family had to flee Dresden, which was bombed to rubble by the allies at the end of the war. This confusing combination of perpetrator and victim was a standard story for many German families at this time. The term Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a German concept meaning “the overcoming of the past”. It is arguably the single most important concept to occupy the German cultural psyche since the end of the Nazi era. What does one do with a history in which such unspeakable horrors were committed in your name, in which one or ones parents or grandparents perhaps even contributed? Can one ever learn to live with such as history, or atone for it? Does it ever stop being an overwhelming part of the German identity? Within the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung, is an implied success at overcoming history, at least at some point in the future if not yet. Artists have tended to be more skeptical. And Gerhard Richter’s work seems to show again and again how complicated and intertwined with the present the past really is, in a way that can never be overcome.

Jugendbildnis (Youth Potrait) 1988 67cm x 62cm
Jugendbildnis (Youth Potrait) 1988 67cm x 62cm

Ulrike Meinhof was a German terrorist and member of the Red Army Faction, a group which reacted to Germany's Nazi past and what they saw as the continuities to it within the present government with terrorist violence. The violence of the Red Army Faction, although completely different in shape to making a painting such as Onkel Rudi, was also a form of engagement with the Nazi past. Richter's portrait of Ulrike Meinhof as a young woman, before she became a terrorist, is similar to his portrayal of his uncle. If one does not know better, the figure might be read as sympathetic. But every German viewer knew better. Recognition of her face was part of the cultural inheritance of everyone in Germany who had ever read or watched the news during the late 1970s. She was a criminal, and yet, Richter depicts her so banally, so simply human. The viewer is reminded the poignant phrase coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt "the banality of evil".

Richter painted Jugendbildnis in 1988, as part of a cycle of paintings, together titled Oktober 18, 1977, eleven years after the death (presumably by suicide) of most of the Red Army Faction leaders. Most of the paintings of the cycle dealt directly with images relating to their death, Jugendbildnis, showing Meinhof before she became a terrorist, and which only in hindsight becomes uncanny, was an exception. By making these paintings, Richter engaged with the traditionally exalted genre of history painting, exemplified by such works as Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of Napolian. Traditional history painting was enormous, pompous and celebratory. The deadliness of the twentieth century's history however, made most artists feel that history painting has become obsolete. Yet, perhaps history painting is needed more then ever when our relationship to history is as difficult and ugly as the relationship of Germans to their Nazi past. Richter's cycle Oktober 17, 1988 shows the possibilities for a contemporary history painting. His history painting is unheroic. It is neither celebratory nor condemning, because clear-cut truths about good or evil do not make much sense anymore. History painting today is however compassionate, in that recognizes that the people pictured are different in degree, but not in kind from the people we are and those who are pictured in our own snapshots. It does not reassure the viewer, and there is no moral to the historic episode.

Tote (Dead) 1988 62cm x 67cm
Tote (Dead) 1988 62cm x 67cm

Perhaps more touching to an American viewer is Richter's history painting from 2005 September, relating to September 11, 2001. Although not a picture of specifically German history, it uses Richter's understanding of the impossibility of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, in a similar way to his paintings of the Red Army Faction. Excessive drama has been removed from the painting, the colors have been muted and the outlines blurred. The style of the smearing mimics the style Richter uses for many of his abstract works, such as Abstraktes Bild 780-1, pictured earlier in this essay. This painting is humble in its size, inverting the traditional role of the history painting, similarly to how Oktober 18, 1977 paintings invert history painting through their banality. There is no way to feel closure about this event when looking at September, as a clearer, larger, more nationalistic image might have allowed one to feel. Instead, the viewer engages with his or her memory of the event, particularly on the anxious truth that this event was embedded in the real, everyday world.

September 2005 52cm x 72cm
September 2005 52cm x 72cm

Richter and Photography

"A lot of artists use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs are his reality" (Danto)
Photography has become more real than reality. We experience more that is mediated through the expressions of others, using technology (written words, news reports, telephone calls, films, and especially photography) than we experience what could be called unmediated, or "pure". Theorists have reacted to the recognition of our mediated world both with intrigue and with concern. An important early voice to this debate was Walter Benjamin, with his work from 1936 "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit." Benjamin saw the spread of technological reproducibility as a dangerous trend for art. Art, Benjamin argued, had traditionally had an aura; experiencing this aura was one of the closest ways our secular culture got to pilgrimage. As a work of art gets reproduced in photographs, and decontextualized through its insertion into museums and into books, looking at it looses any sense of the higher spirituality that, in Benjamin's understanding, existed in an earlier era's experience of art. This was a horrifying prospect in Benjamin's mind; horror was a fair enough feeling for someone living and writing in Germany in 1936, as the Nazis sat firmly in power and took step after step to impose their dangerous totalitarian ideology on Germany and Europe.

After the defeat of Germany in the Second World War, photography and reproduction continued on, and they lost the connection to the march toward fascist ideology that they had had for Benjamin. Reproduction and experience of art through mediation began to be seen as less singularly negative, and more as an important and meaningful reality, which artists, if conscious of it, can manipulate for interesting results.

How does Richter contribute to this discourse on photography, and mediated reality? He attempts, through his art to blur the boundaries between painting and photography, and thus alter the meaning of both. If we take Benjamin's concept of an aura as a spiritual emanation from a work of art, than much photography has no aura. But although Benjamin would perhaps not agree, more recent theorization has argued that photography, even trashy tabloid pictures or amateur family snapshots do indeed have an aura, just a different type of aura from painting. Christian Metz, in his 1985 article "Photography and Fetish", expresses eloquently how photos can fetishized, to the point of evoking a deep combination of desire and fear in an almost spiritual way. A photograph has some sort of relationship to "truth", and also to death: the instant a photograph is taken, the moment it captured exists no more. A photo is a recording of something that is already history (Metz). This is the kind of aura photography invokes.

In 1978, Richter said: "I wanted to do paintings that had nothing to do with art, so I painted from photographs" (quoted in Schneede, 13). Thus in his work he was deliberately refusing the Benjamin-ian aura of painting. But of course, this quote cannot be taken entirely seriously. If he really wanted nothing to do with art, he would not have worked in the medium of painting, that most quintessential of all traditional art media. Instead of just distancing his work from art, by making paintings from photographs, Richter combined and reinterpreted the different realms and auras usually associated with painting and photography separately. Earlier (in 1966) he had commented that "a painting of a murder is of no interest whatever, but a photograph of a murder fascinates everyone" (quoted in Schneede 14). In this quote, Richter draws attention to the different types of meaning typically associated with painting and photography, where the same image of a murder might be so different in each medium. The combination, a painting of a photograph of a murder, transposes some of the aura (of truth, of the fear of death, of voyeuristic intrigue etc.) of the photographic source, onto the painting.

The example below, Apfelbäume, is not a painting from a photograph of a murder; rather it is a painting from a photograph of a landscape so banal it becomes rather charming. Richter has painted this composition deliberately void of high excitement. The line between the green-grey of the grass and the blue-grey of the mountains and sky is roughly in the middle of the composition, lending a static feeling to the painting. This is furthered by the centrality of the two main trees that function as the main subject matter. A skinny road, staying firmly in the left quarter of the painting is the other important subject matter. In painting this landscape, based on the photograph of a landscape taken in this, seemingly amateur, banal way, it seems that Richter is deliberately distancing himself from the typical aura of painting. To further mix the auras of painting and photography, the painting is created with precision and realism of a photograph, due to Richter's method of transposing an transposing photo via a grid onto his canvas in a mechanical process. The presence of the road too, takes away any feeling of romance that landscape painting traditionally implies. In all these ways, Richter has mixed the aura of the snapshot photograph into the genre of landscape painting, .
Apfelbäume (Apple Trees) 1987 67cm x 92cm
Apfelbäume (Apple Trees) 1987 67cm x 92cm

Richter has a set of works he calls "overpainted photographs", which are still largely and surprisingly ignored in most of the writings on Richter. They are a logical continuation of his photo-paintings, as they further recombine the separate auras of painting and photography. Ohne Title: 15. März 03, is the size of a normal family snapshot, small even for Richter's typically humble scales. The genre is, of course, a classic for photography: mother and children enjoying their leisure time on the beach, probably photographed by father. Although it is a sharp, competently taken photograph, unless these people belonged our own family, we probably would not give it a second look. But Richter has transformed it through the textured smear of grey paint that he created across its surface. This smear serves to draw attention to the two-dimensionality of the photograph; it insists on the photo's object-ness. It also obscures any narrative we might want to read in the image of this family. Any faces are now covered. Like Richter's painting Sekretärin forty years earlier, however, this obscuring, in an intriguingly contradictory way, serves to both stress the surface of the photograph, and the backstory. It lends such mystery to the iconography, that we cannot stop wondering about it. The family snapshot, a genre of photography we have been trained to instantly recognize and categorize, is suddenly given a different aura through Richter's application of a single smear paint.

Ohne Titel 15. März 03 (Untitled 15 March 03) 2003 9.7cm x 15.1cm overpainted photograph
Ohne Titel 15. März 03 (Untitled 15 March 03) 2003 9.7cm x 15.1cm overpainted photograph


"Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God." (Gerhard Richter 1962)
Gerhard Richter's paintings are a far richer subject than I had the space to reflect about in this essay. His work touches on contemporary dialogs spanning a vast number of subjects, and this essay dealt with just three of them. Ultimately, all of his paintings are about the problem of painting: they are about the relationship between representative iconography and the object-hood of the painting. By using such techniques as blurring, photographic visual tropes, decontextualization and overpainting, Richter's works can be understood to be emphasizing the distance between the mediated world of art and the reality outside the canvas. But at the same time, Richter tends to leave just enough clues unobscured in his paintings to make viewers irresistibly curious about the meaning of the iconography. Richter's return again and again to the problematic genre of history painting, further stresses the importance of iconography and of painting's function as something that tells a story. It is because Richter accepts these inherent contradictions in his paintings between the indexical and non-indexical meanings, and does not try to solve them, that his body of work is so powerful.


*All images were taken off of Gerhard Richter's official website.
  • Benjamin, Walter "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" 1936. Translated from the German "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" by Harry Zohn, 1968.
  • Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. editor, Gerhard Richter, MIT Press 2009.
  • Danto, Arthur. "History in a Blur", The Nation (May 13, 2002): accessed May 8, 2012.
  • Elger, Dietmar and Helmut Friedel. "Gerhard Richter: Atlas." Dresden, Germany. Filmed February 2012. video 20:58.
  • Holm, Michael Juul et al editors, Gerhard Richter - Image After Image, Rosendahls Bogtrykkeri, Esbjerg Denmark, 2005.
  • Irvine, Martin. "Richter: Seminar Notes": 2009.
  • Metz, Christian. "Photography and Fetish", October 34 (1985): 81-90.
  • Richter, Gerhard. Artist's Official Website, 2012.
  • Richter, Gerhard. The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings and Interviews 1962-1993. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
  • Schneede, Uwe M., exhibition curator and catalog editor, Gerhard Richter: Images of an Era, Zeit Stiftung 2011.
  • Stanford, Henrietta "'Staying Anxious': On Death and Wakefulness in Gerhard Richter's //October 18, 1977//" from the symposium Panorama: New Perspectives on Richter, Tate Modern, London, UK. Filmed 21 October 2011. video 25:29.
  • Storr, Robert September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing 2010.
  • Tøjner, Poul Erik "Gerhard Richter" in Michael Holm et al. Gerhard Richter -Image After Image, Rosendahls Bogtrykkeri, Esbjerg Denmark, 2005