Gerhard Richter

This extensive history and analysis of the continuation of painting in Europe and the USA in the last third of the Twentieth century (1960-2000) by Jason Gaiger is concerned with the attempt to sustain the critical and progressive impetus of painting at a time concurrent with this form of art losing its position at the forefront of ar.  It is also concerned with the temporal character of art and with its inexhaustible historical and social dimension.

The clarion call to abandon painting was issued by Marcel Duchamp in the 1920’s as he announced his ‘abandonment of painting’ that subsequently led to the exploration of a wide variety of alternative artistic practices. However, Jason Gaiger first helps us to understand the ‘productive tension’ between the content or subject matter of the painting and physical elements of the painting…a dynamic interplay that is often subliminal to the observer who participates in the illusion that the brush marks and pigment sustain.  A painting is bound both by the physical limits of the medium and by the contrast between the world it creates and the world out of which it is created.

In contrast, Jason Gaiger points out the plethora of reproductive possibilities offered by photography that assisted artist in breaking away from painting which was imitation and direct their attention to the more direct reality of a photograph.  The invention of photography originally acted as a catalyst for a process of critical reflection on the limits and possibilities of painting.


Apparently for the modernist, the painting’s handmade quality, its slowness of production and the laborious reliance on brushes, oils and primers make it take on the appearance of a relic of the past, a vestige of an archaic art.


The challenge to painting came not only from photography but also from video, film , performance, land art and Conceptual Art.  Here the critical difference opposing it to painting is the focusing of attention on the relation between the artist and the viewer with the ‘work’ no longer seen as a self-subsistent entity.


Nonetheless, in the 1980’s a powerful counter-reaction to these alternative artistic forms rose up to herald the return of painting as a major force on the international art scene.  A younger generation of artists began to produce oil paintings with highly gestural and expressive brushwork, including Kiefer, Baselitz, Lupertz, and Schnabel in the United States


Gerhard Richter recorded the following remark in his notebook in 1973:

“One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting.  Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting.  But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do.  Then it is best to leave it alone.  For basically, painting is total idiocy.”

Richter created various painting pictures from black-and-white photographs during the 1960s and early 1970s, basing them on a variety of sources: from newspapers and books, sometimes incorporating their captions, Many of these paintings are made in a multi-step process of representations. He starts with a photograph, which he has found or taken himself, and projects it onto his canvas, where he traces it for exact form. Taking his color palette from the photograph, he paints to replicate the look of the original picture. His hallmark “blur”—sometimes a softening by the light touch of a soft brush, sometimes a hard smear by an aggressive pull with his squeegee—has two effects:[

  1. It offers the image a photographic appearance; and
  2. Paradoxically, it testifies the painter’s actions, both skilled and coarse, and the plastic nature of the paint itself.

In some paintings blurs and smudges are severe enough to disrupt the image; it becomes hard to understand or believe. In these paintings, images and symbols (such as landscapes, portraits, and news photos) are rendered fragile illusions, fleeting conceptions in our constant reshaping of the world.


Richter states that the use of photographic imagery as a starting point for his early paintings resulted from an attempt to escape the complicated process of deciding what to paint, along with the critical and theoretical implications accompanying such decisions within the context of a modernist discourse. To achieve this, Richter began amassing photos from magazines, books, etc., many of which became the subject matter of his early photography-based paintings. In 1995, the artist marked the 50th anniversary of the allied bombings of his hometown Dresden during the Second World War. His solitary candle was reproduced on a monumental scale and placed overlooking the River Elbe as a symbol of rejuvenation.

Since 1989, Richter has worked on creating new images by dragging wet paint over photographs. The photographs, not all taken by Richter himself, are mostly snapshots of daily life: family vacations, pictures of friends, flowers, mountains, and buildings.

Richter assists us in an understanding of his artistic process:

“A photograph is taken in order to inform.
What matters to the photographer and to the viewer is the result, the legible information, the fact captured in an image.  Alternatively the photograph can be regarded as a picture, in which case the information conveyed changes radically.  However, because it is very hard to turn a photograph into a picture simply be declaring it to be one, I have to make a painted copy.”

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