Gerhard Richter is one of Europe’s most prolific and acclaimed post-war artists. His work spans some six decades and ranges from painting, photography, printmaking and collage to sculpture and designs for stained-glass windows. He has produced portraits and landscapes as well as dramatic abstract works, boldly and bravely interrogating subjects such as growing up during the Third Reich, dealing with Germany’s difficult past, life in communist Dresden, as well as personal themes from family life. He also often responds to current world events, such as political terrorism in the 1970s Germany and the September 11 attacks.
Richter was born in Dresden in 1932 into a middle-class family: his father was a teacher and his mother a bookseller with a love of music. Although the family moved out to a small village in the German province of Saxony in 1935, his father was eventually conscripted and became a prisoner of war. In 1942, Richter was required to join the “Pimpfen”, an organization for children that prepared them for the Hitler Youth. While too young to be drafted into the German army, the war nonetheless left a deep impression on the young Richter from seeing Russian soldiers marching through his village and playing with discarded guns, to finding out the truth about the Holocaust. Following the Potsdam agreement at the end of the war, the area in which the Richters lived fell under Soviet control.
His interest in art was sparked when he received a simple plate camera from his mother and gained access to a local library that stocked art books. Around the age of 15, Richter started to draw regularly. After leaving school he became an assistant theater set painter, and although his first application to the Dresden Art Academy was initially rejected he was granted a place in 1951. He received a rigorous artistic education but struggled against the Academy’s insistence on social realism. Upon graduation, Richter joined the mural-painting department, but found its creative prohibitions stifling.
In 1961, Richter and his wife Ema left the increasingly repressive GDR (former East Germany) for West Germany. He began studying at the Düsseldorf Academy in 1961 and became involved in the city’s vibrant artistic scene. In his work, Richter set about exploring the relationship between photography and painting, a medium that served his artistic practice for years to come. He began making paintings directly from photographs, family snapshots, or newspaper illustrations, aligning himself with the Pop Art movement and Dada. Ever searching for a new direction, Richter’s oeuvre eventually evolved to become more abstract: he began smearing his canvasses, scraping or smudging paint across the surface.
Richter’s Representation of His Life Through the Lens
Richter’s move to the West meant that he was exposed to – and could interrogate – photography as a commercial mouthpiece of the capitalist culture that now surrounded him. Newspapers and magazines ubiquitously mixed images and text, news and advertising, commodity and celebrity. In response, Richter created “Atlas der Fotos und Skizzen”, which he begun working on in the early 1960s. It continued as an evolving project composed of some 4,000 photographs, reproductions or cut-out details of photographs and illustrations, grouped together on 800 panels.
What began as an accumulation of press cuttings, illustrations from magazines and books, and family photographs, has evolved into a scrapbook of paint samples, sketches and collages, although photography has remained central to the project. From 1969, the German artist systematically pasted his collection onto standardised sheets of card, sticking to a rigid grid format, which echoes his geometric “Colour Charts”. There are discernible themes – whether it’s images of cityscapes, landscapes or portraits.
Experiencing Life’s Pivotal Moments Through Richter’s Eyes
“Atlas” acts as a sort of memory board – a fusion of personal moments captured in family photographs, Richter’s thoughts about landscapes and the environment, as well as a record of public events. The images often reflect the subjects of his paintings: some of the earlier photographs became source images for his photo paintings, such as a photograph of Richter’s daughter, Betty, turning away from the camera. Other panels show historic events, such as photographs of the Holocaust, which eventually fed into “Black, Red, Gold”, a piece commissioned by the German parliament and executed in coloured glass. Although the shadows of the Second World War and the Holocaust often hang over Richter’s work, he has rarely engaged with the Holocaust directly.
“Atlas” was first exhibited in 1972 at the Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst in Utrecht, which then included 315 parts. It continued to expand and was exhibited later in full form at the Lenbachhaus in Munich in 1989, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 1990, and at Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1995. Each time a different selection of panels was shown. It was purchased by Munich’s Lenbachhaus in 1996. Today, some of the earlier panels are too fragile to move so the artist has curated a tome of more than 5,000 photographs, drawings and sketches to be examined at leisure.
Gerhard Richter’s legacy
Richter is represented in the collections of the most distinguished modern art museums, such as Tate Modern and MoMA in New York, and has had a large number of solo retrospectives throughout his long career. He also enjoys unrivalled commercial success across most of his mediums. In the past decade, Richter’s abstract paintings, of which there are hundreds of versions, have become status symbols, selling for tens of millions at auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In 2012, his work, “Abstraktes Bild” (1994), belonging to Eric Clapton, was sold for £21 million ($34 million) at Sotheby’s in London, helping to set a record for the highest-selling work by a living artist. The following year, his cityscape of Milan, “Domplatz Mailand”, sold for £24.4 million ($37.1 million). His top-selling work at auction is a 1986 “Abstraktes Bild (599)”, which sold for £30.39 million ($46.35 million) at Sotheby’s in London in 2015. In 2020 Richter became the most expensive Western artist to sell at an Asian auction, when his “Abstraktes Bild (649-2)” from 1987 sold for HK$214.6 million ($27.6 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale of contemporary art. The painting went to the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone in Japan.
Gerhard Richter’s diverse and boundary-pushing practice, which touches on both personal and the political, has engaged with post-war avant-gard movements and has evolved from his early social realist beginnings to explore the possibilities of representational and abstract ways of painting. He is most widely known for works such the “October 18, 1977” cycle of paintings, dealing with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group; his Pop Art colour-chart paintings and later abstract works with richly layered surfaces, as well as the intriguing “Atlas” project. His prolific use of photography – whether as a subject for his paintings, as a tool in his Overpainted Photographs series, or as a mode of documentation in “Atlas” – has been highly inventive and instrumental in catapulting him into the public eye.