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Art of Gerhard Richter

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Introduction: Photography and its contemporary relation to art of painting.

They say Art is a product of the free mind. What we mean by such statement is that a free mind is more probable to wander farther into the realms of true art. From the start of civilization, painting (also drawing) has remained the central point of human action in recording the feelings, imagination and the nature itself. With every passing century the progress of human understanding of nature brought about sea changes in its depiction on the paper, wall or canvas.

But what actually changed the set views and paradigms of artist of coming centuries was the ability to think out of the box. Those artists were able to see the world from a different perspective, and who became lateral thinkers. Such artists have given art a new dimension every time. Artists create art to communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings. They use a variety of methods such as painting, sculpting or illustration and an assortment of materials including oils, watercolours, acrylics, pastels, pencils. Artists, works may be realistic or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature or events. We are swamped by so many images, on the streets, in magazines and on the television.

Artists usually create landscape paintings in one of four ways: They paint entirely on location; they rely on memory or imagination; they work from photos; or they use a combination of these sources [1]. Working from photos to create art pieces as paintings has always been an act which came under darkness due to overlapping views (and counterviews too) about ethics of the profession and such other reasons. Some can say that painting by taking initial source as a photograph lacks the freshness of thought and the “as-it-is” natural conditions. Also too much reliance on photographs can result in paintings that lack breadth and are broken apart by tedious detail [1]. But using a photograph merely as a source of reference for an idea is not discouraged at all. Rather it is very much beneficial in cases where there is no possibility of carrying painting equipment or where there is short time between events that change the condition of the idea which has to be captured.

Substratum of Photography-Painting Connection:

I remember the first place I went to on this trip where we were active, one of the resettlements that we built. I found that as far as I was concerned, they were impossible to photograph. Neat little rows of houses. This wasn’t my idea of something fun to photograph at all. But I had the good luck to ask someone, “Where are you all from? Where did they bring you from?” And when he told me, I went on to a place called Scott’s Run, and there it began. From there I went all through Kentucky, West Virginia, down to Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana—in other words, I covered the mine country and the cotton country. I was terribly excited about it, and did no painting at all in that time. This was it, I thought. I’m sort of a single track guy, anyway. When I’m off on photography, photography is it, and I thought this would be the career for the rest of my life.[1]

A photograph is a 2D image of a landscape or an object, thus painting from photos calls for talent of an artist to introduce a sense of depth and freshness into the painting, an objective which is achieved only by an artist who is well verse with his/her accumulated knowledge and experience about pigments, surfaces, procedures, and the wisdom passed down from generations of others who have recorded nature [1]

In his very own words, Gerhard asserts: “I was surprised by photography, which we all use so massively everyday,” he told Michael Kimmelman in an interview for the New York Times Magazine. “Suddenly, I saw it in a new way, as a picture that offered me a new view, free of all the conventional criteria I had always associated with art. It had no style, no comparison, not judgment. It freed me from personal experience. For the first time, there was nothing to it: it was pure picture. That’s why I wanted to have it, to show it—not to use it as a means of painting, but use painting as a means to photography.”[2]

One of the earliest works of Gerhard Richter in the “painting from photograph (photo based paintings) movement” is the 1962 painting “Table.” A depiction of an ordinary, institutional-style metal table, the canvas is split horizontally with a dark gray floor beneath a lighter gray wall. On the painting’s surface is an aggressive brush of gray paint in looping arcs, forcing the viewer to look through the scribbles to see the room [2]


Over the last few years, artists have made increasing use of Photoshop. Eric Fischl, for example, who is best known for his voyeuristic, psychologically charged paintings of amorous couples, employs it to collage together different images until they register as something he wants to paint. “I am part of a generation that was schooled in the belief that discovery and execution should occur simultaneously on the canvas,” he says. “For nearly 25 years I had held on to that belief, feeling that were I to know what I wanted to paint before I discovered it, the painting would lose its vitality. When I began working in Photoshop, essentially separating the discovery process from the execution, I feared it would kill the painting. What I discovered instead was that it freed me to explore painting itself.” [3]

Richter had this to say about the relation between painting, photography, and an aesthetics of everyday life: All painters, in fact everybody, should paint copies of photos-that is, in the manner in which I do this (and this also refers to the selection I make). Then such paintings should be exhibited and hung everywhere: in apartments, in restaurants, in offices, in railway stations, in churches, everywhere. Subsequently a prize competition would be held, and the jurors would judge on the basis of chosen theme, depiction, and speed of the copying, and then award medals. Television and radio would report every day on the latest pictures. After a while, laws would be enacted that would lead to the punishment of anyone who had not painted copies of a sufficient number of photographs. This process would have to last for approximately 400 years, after which painting photographs would be forbidden in Germany [8].

Richter continued for the next several years (after his work: table (1962) ) to concentrate on the blurred but precise photographic style that became his trademark. Unlike other artists who employ photographs only as a reference aid, Richter uses photographs—either found or taken by the painter himself—as if they were reality [2]. And although he cares about what the images are of, he often chooses a subject that he has no independent experience of, such as, for example, a clipping from a newspaper. In transferring the subjects, Richter first traces meticulously onto canvas the details of the photographic image, then introduces any number of distortions. In effect, when looking at a photorealist painting by Richter, one is simultaneously seeing but not seeing. Uncovering a new way of looking at the relationship between photographs and painting was an exciting moment for Richter [2] What is perhaps less clear is the effect a painting has, today, on its photographic original. Reviewing Edward Weston in The Nation in 1946, Clement Greenberg opined that ‘photography is the only art that can still afford to be naturalistic and that, in fact, achieves its maximum effect through naturalism’.[6]

Since its invention, photography has served painters as an illustrational aid, helping them convey expressions, gestures and movements too fleeting for the naked eye. In a few cases – Edgar Degas is the most obvious example – photographs have provided cues for composition as well [3].

October 18, 1977 series of paintings:

Richter has been painting in a style that references photography for most of his career. The idea of painting photos is one that is reflexive and somewhat ironic. Artists also create works that use memory as a lens through which to distill, reinterpret, or recall historical and political events, sometimes reworking images and text in the process[9, page 3]

The Red Army Faction and The Baader-Meinhof Group

This cycle of paintings was created based on video footage, journalist photos and forensic photos; it commemorates the October day in 1977 when several imprisoned student-terrorists in West Germany were found dead in their cells. Some background on this event: Increasing dis-ease among college students developed in the late 60s/early 70s. Concerns with the national secret of Germany’s past Nazi regime, rampant consumerism, and fears of another world war in Europe (between the USSR and US) fueled youthful outrage and criticism of German culture and politics. Numerous small college student factions emerged, but the most notorious was the The Red Army Faction (RAF). Clashes between then-peaceful student protestors and more violent government authorities, led to increased calls for violence.

The RAF undertook numerous guerilla attacks – kidnappings, shootings, bombings, robberies and the like, until 1972 when some members of a smaller, subgroup of the RAF were arrested and imprisoned. These students were the members of “the Baader-Meinhof Group” after its founders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Other members included Baader’s lover, Gudrun Ensslin and Holger Meins, Jan Carl Raspe, and Irmgard Moller. The images in the cycle begin with the 1972 arrests

Arrest I, 1988, oil, 36 x 49 in: Shows Meins surrendering to an armored car whose gun is trained on him while he disrobes to provethat he is unarmed.

Events of October 18 – which included the aftermath in which the remaining imprisoned members were mortally attacked or committed suicide is the subject of these paintings.

It is unclear whether the deaths of the imprisoned B-M Group generated out of official retribution (murder) or desperation (suicide)

Cell, 1988, oil: Reveals the book-lined cell belonging to Baader

Record Player, 1988, oil, 24 x 32 in: The smashed record player in which prison officials say Baader hid a smuggled gun he later reportedly used in his own suicide.

Man Shot Down I, 1988, oil, 39 x 55 in, Man Shot Down II, 1988, oil: Two versions of the same forensic photo of Baader dead on the floor of his cell.

Hanged, 1988, oil, 78 x 75 in. :Centers on Ensslin’s corpse as it was discovered the morning of October 18[11]

Death is the perfect subject for photography” says James Hamilton, photographer. After all isn’t a corpse really a photograph of the living human being? Stilled? Captured? Arrested?

Also, the documentary nature of photography tells us death is real as opposed to the fictionalizing possibilities of painting (Remember Death of Socrates? Fictionalized, idealized and romanticized). The 15 paintings comprising Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 (1988) are based on police or press photographs of moments in the lives and deaths of members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a German left-wing terrorist group that perpetrated a number of kidnappings and killings throughout the 1970s. Like On Kawara’s Date paintings, these paintings have a single date as their title: the date the bodies of principal RAF members were found in the cells of the prison where they were incarcerated. Richter‘s reworking of these documentary sources is dark, blurred, and diffuse, and questions the place of historical painting at the end of modernism [10].

Is October 18, 1977 the last gasp of history painting? No, it is the first deep breath in over half a century` Robert Storr:

Widely considered a masterpiece of contemporary history painting, the October 18 1977 series consists of 15 paintings from photographs of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group and the controversial events surrounding its members’ deaths in prison on that date. The paintings are based on newspaper photographs of the German terrorist group that called itself the Red Army Faction. The canvases show the radicals in custody, dead in their cells (three died mysteriously on the same day), their heavily attended and policed funeral, and also happier times. But the paintings’ deliberately blurred surfaces ominously embalm events whose truth will never be fully known [12]. Painted entirely in low-contrast-blacks and greys, it is a sober and arresting work even for viewers who may be unfamiliar with the subject. Somehow, its ambiguities remain intact even in the hypersensitive context of recent terrorist atrocities: the images of Meinhof’s head prick us in the same way that Richter’s earlier Eight Student Nurses, 1966, painted from yearbook style portraits of women who were the victims of a serial killer, seem to look both backward and forward at something gone horribly wrong.[4]

Hence, the main reasons for artists using photographs as a starting point for the finalized work are very holistic in nature. Every reason calls for a thorough and detailed thinking. There are some artists like Gerhard Richter who blatantly use photographs in their work and openly claim it too; however there are some artists who just used photographs as reference for their further work and only use photography as a tool to record ideas and to remember the changing condition of a particular object. After studying the photograph, such artists prefer to differ from the source photo and make a completely different work yet based on the same idea. They call it for individualistic act. Illusion- or rather appearance, semblance- is the theme of my life (could be the theme of a speech welcoming freshmen to the academy). All that seems, and is visible to us, we perceive it by the reflected light of semblance. Nothing else is visible. Painting concerns itself, as no other art does [5], exclusively with semblance (I include photograph, of course)[4]

For Richter, such photographs manifestly lack something: they are all picture, and the job of painting is precisely to shatter the picture. This is certainly true of Woman with Umbrella (1964), his painting from a photograph of the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy. The ‘picture’, as Richter sees it, is a communicative object, the bearer of information that the painting elides in favour of indistinction and anonymity. Similarly, in his Nurses (1965), the eight faces of a household of student nurses murdered in Chicago seem to recede into historical distance, to become emblems of universal loss or mourning. The original image, however – a set of school or college portraits, clearly syndicated internationally at the time (Richter’s copy is from a German newspaper)- has already gone some way to making the women look anonymous. Richter takes photographs that say little, almost nothing, and then drains them of what affective clarity they possess, so that looking then at the original images, preserved in the archive of his Atlas, they look as though they might fade to a greyish smudge in an instant, such is their historical frailty.

Photography’s claims to a mechanically inspired objectivity do not mean that it aspires to any totalizing vision. Its refutation of the individual, monadic vantage point, provides confirmation of the fact that it is a humanistic conceit to believe that a single consciousness can be the measure of all things. Richter’s career began during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and, like the rigorously unexpressive and premeditated output of contemporaries such as Ed Ruscha and Bernhard and Hilla Becher, his work can be read as a necessary corrective to the self-aggrandizing excesses of that era’s dominant movement. By making painting aspire to the condition of photography, he sought to rescue the older art from the jaws of an immoderate subjectivism. If Jackson Pollock was to egotistically declare ‘Every good artist paints what he is’, then Richter preferred the unwavering formula ‘I have always loathed subjectivity’ [7].

Contemporary Views on Photography for Painting:

Today a new generation of photo-realist painters has once again focused attention on the connection between mechanical and manual means of representation. Artists such as Paul Winstanley, Mark Fairnington and Machiko Edmonson find themselves working within the conventions of a genre that subordinates subjective gesture to impersonal exactitude. Best described as innately photographic, it is an approach which the German artist Gerhard Richter has spent the last 40 years exploring in an attempt to rid painting of many of its founding precepts. The starting point for much of Richter’s work are the photographs which he copies in order, as he once put it, to stop him from seeing the world ‘in any personal way’. ‘If I paint from a photograph’, he told one critic, ‘I can paint against my will.’ To Richter the neutrality of photography is inherently superior to the bias of painting, which is always subject to the distortions of individual and ideological concerns.

For as a process — the application of paint onto a surface by a human hand — painting necessarily belongs inside history, since the mind that governs the hand cannot ever stand wholly outside the moment both which it occupies and by which it is occupied. The decision to adopt a passive aesthetic, to ‘paint like a camera’, was one way of disconnecting both from all specificity and from those attributes, such as freedom, creativity and mastery, normally associated with the role of the artist. Richter took this stance to its hyperbolic conclusion, eventually proclaiming that the canvases he was producing were the ‘antithesis of “painting”’. ‘I’m not trying to imitate a photograph’, he declared, I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means: I’m not producing paintings that remind you of a photograph but producing photographs [7].

Richter’s maxim, regardless of how it was intended, can be rephrased as follows: the extension of the object remains constant under changed conditions of perception, for these changes alter the perceptual image but not the object itself. To the extent that we can assume this quasi-scientific concept of the object to obtain, natura naturans and natura naturata coincide empirically as

materia and materials. The statements in which Richter terms himself a “materialist” are derived from this notion of coincidence. On the other hand, however, Richter’s ambiguous caption contains a peculiar comment on his own work as a history of creation. For if what is “seen through a magnifying glass” is a piece of natura naturata, then this coincidence occurs on the other side of the scale of dichotomous concepts: the focus is then not on the indifference of the empirical, but rather on the transformation of that indifference into differentiated notions.

Hubertus Butin, in his essay on Richter’s October 18, 1977 paintings, has provided a striking example of this dialectic movement within Richter’s pictorial aesthetic:

In 1968, together with Sigmar Polke, Richter produced a print that, through the use of photographs, showed the transformation of a mountain into a sphere. In a spirit of pseudoscientific seriousness, the photographs purportedly documented how the artists invalidated the laws of nature. Of course, the facticity of that which is represented, asserted with supposedly sober seriousness, is contradicted by the pure fictitiousness of the natural occurrence itself. The artists’ purported achievement, presented here with cunningly ironic wit, downplays their social impotence, while at the same time making this indirectly apparent owing to the grotesque absurdity of the claim for artistic omnipotence[5]

Works Cited

[1] Armes & Steve, Using Sketches, Photographs, Research, and Imagination to Create Studio Paintings, American Artist, 00027375, Feb2008, Vol. 72, Issue 784

[2] Gerhard Richter, Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 23. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 3 pp. 23 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. City Colleges Of Chicago. 27 Feb. 2008.

[3] Grundberg Andy, Review/Photography; Using the Camera as a Guide and Tool in Painting, Published: June 8, 1990

[4] Rosenberg Karen, The Real Richter? Art Monthly, no255, April 2002.

[5] Foster Hal, Semblance According to Gerhard Richter, Raritan.

[6] Dillon Brian, The Painting Of Modern Life, Feature Artreview.

[7] Oddy Jason, An Outsider Art: What painting can learn from photography, Modern Painters v13 no2 p97-99, summer 2000.

[8] Koch Gertrud, The Richter-Scale of Blur, October, Vol. 62. (Autumn, 1992), pp. 133-142.


[9] Buchloh Benjamin H. D, Divided Memory and Post-Traditional Identity: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning, October, Vol. 75. (Winter, 1996), pp. 60-82.


[10] OUT OF TIME: A Contemporary view examines the variety of ways that contemporary artists address the experience of time, NEW YORK, August 22, 2006.


[11] Images of Death and Dying: Kathe Kollwitz, Gerhard Richter, Andres Serrano and Joel-Peter Witkin.


[12] Smith Roberta, ART REVIEW, Power, Injustice, Death, Loss: At Sea in the Here and Now, September 1, 2006.

[1] From “Photography” by Ben Shahn (1944)
Collected in Ben Shahn, edited by John Morse
Praeger Publishers, 1972

[2] The Table (1962), Painting by Gerhard Richter.

[3]  Slides and prejudice, http://www.artnewsblog.com/2006/04/painting-from-photographs.htm

[4] Gerhard Richter, The daily practice of painting: Writings 1962-1993

[5] Hubertus Butin, Zu Richters Oktober-Bildern (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther

Konig, 1991), p. 54.

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