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Monday, 30 April 2012 02:00

Fade to Grey

As this is my debut for ITCH magazine, the first column of many I hope, it would do well for me to introduce myself and my intentions for this small universe of paragraphs, spaces, words and dots. I am a twentieth century historian by training and I will be moonlighting as a cultural critic while writing for ITCH. My qualifications are a Masters degree in Art History, some gallery work experience, and a dash of decidedly dishevelled old-fashioned enthusiasm. These columns are not designed to be objective or definitive. Rather they represent my own partial opinions and will sometimes be laboratories or testing grounds for ideas on culture and/or representation that I may work up into more formal academic theses at a later date. With this in mind, I will begin with the latest display of works by the German post-war artist, Gerhard Richter, a figure brought up at the fault-lines of modern European history: a child and teenager in Nazi Germany, a student and Socialist Realist mural painter in Communist Dresden, a post-1961 avant-garde émigré to West Germany and a contemporary artist of international acclaim.

Touring the iconic architectural and cultural spaces of the Tate Modern, London (6 October 2011 - 8 January 2012), the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (12 February - 13 May 2012) and finally, the Centre Pompidou, Paris (6 June - 24 September 2012), 'Panorama' is the most recent major European exhibition of Richter's diverse and dynamic practice. For Tate Modern curator, Mark Godfrey, the organising principle underlying 'Panorama' was to provide a chronological framework for understanding Richter's works which would highlight both the historical context of his visual interventions since his emigration to the West as well as the complex inter-relationships between his many approaches in painting and installation. As a result, the exhibition at Tate begins in the 1960s with Richter's stark yet affecting monochrome photo based paintings, his post-Duchampian experiments as well as his representations of ravaged townscapes and seascapes; before moving on to cover the indifferent ambivalence of the Grey Paintings, the mathematical experiments of the Colour Charts as well as the Renaissance era Titian re-renderings of the 1970s. The show at London Bankside also explores the mirror installations, Candle and Skull still lives and controversial Baader Meinhof portraits of the 1980s as well as the emboldened, seemingly euphoric yet precise squeegee worked abstractions of the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, the exhibition concludes with Richter's painterly homage to American hero of the 1950s and 1960s Avant-Garde John Cage, as well as the German artist's sombre and serious efforts to deal with the legacies of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

As a historian, I can see why this chronological structure for understanding developments in Richter's oeuvre is effective, providing us with insights into the artist's sometimes separate and at other times simultaneous efforts at formal artistic experimentation; the representation of family and friends as well as the interrogation of traumatic personal and collective histories of displacement, violence, terror and war. Within this context, for me, one of the most compelling parts of this retrospective remains the first section on Richter's blurred photo-paintings of the 1960s. Here a diverse range of works are displayed, from those which evoke Richter's experience of the allied aerial bombing raids on Germany during the Second World War (Bombers, 1963; Mustang Squadron, 1964) to those paintings which broke taboos in relation to confronting the Nazi past. This process can be perceived as connecting Richter to figures of his own generation such as Jürgen Habermas who addressed the legacies of the Hitler era as well as historically placing his work in uneasy parallel with a diverse, younger generation of more radical 1960s leftists who revolted in various ways, often peacefully but sometimes violently, against what they saw as a conservative and hypocritical West German establishment. Paintings from this period include Uncle Rudi (1965), a portrait from a family photograph of Richter's Nazi Wehrmacht clad relation which Benjamin H.D. Buchloh has seen as representing, "...one of the earliest examples in all of German postwar art to introduce the subject matter of Germany's recent Nazi history into a work of the neo-avant-garde." Other powerful works in a similar style include Richter's painting from a personal photograph of his Aunt Marianne (1965) who suffered from mental illness and disappeared from his life during Nazi rule, as well as his rendering of a press photograph accompanying the 1959 re-arrest of a Doctor involved in the Nazi Euthanasia program, Mr Heyde (1965). Indeed, testifying to their power as images these paintings ended up having an unpredictable after-life, with the painting Uncle Rudi being donated to the memorial collection of the Nazi ravaged Czech town of Lidice; while in relation to Aunt Marianne, journalist Jürgen Schreiber confirmed that the ghostly subject had been sterilized and murdered during the Third Reich's Euthanasia program. Furthermore, Schreiber also revealed that the father of Richter's first wife, Ema Eufinger had been an SS doctor employed during the Hitler era sterilization campaigns.

However, although the uncanny subject matter of the past haunting the present renders these works undeniably compelling, the other paintings exhibited alongside these works should not be overlooked. These include the sexual liberation of Two Couples (1966) as well as 1964's, Negroes (Nuba), a work which problematically and provocatively re-frames and re-captions through painterly re-appropriation Third Reich film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl's 1960s photograph of a Nuba tribe funeral in the former British colony of the Sudan. Indeed, one of the things that is arguably most significant about this suite of paintings is not only the subtle emotive power of the images on display, but also the way in which the juxtaposition of the diverse thematics of Richter's photo based works of the 1960s, from former Nazis to youthful erotica as well as the controversial labelling and representation of the Nuba, a group who incidentally have recently been under threat, can also possibly be read within the context of current literature on the memory of Nazism which stresses its relationship to issues such as sex and gender as well as the legacies of modern German and European imperialism and colonialism. For example, historian of sexual politics in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic of Germany, Dagmar Herzog has drawn attention to the way in which for those Leftists challenging the political and social conservatism of the West German establishment in the late 1950s and 1960s, embracing a sexually liberal stance, particularly since the publication of Sexuality and Crime (1963) was also part of their revolt against what they saw as the sexually repressive policies and legacies of the Third Reich. Equally, Uta Poiger has noted that post-1945 German history was marked by a pervasive national amnesia in relation to European colonialism including German brutality in early twentieth century East and South-West Africa and what Jürgen Zimmerer and Isabel Hull following Hannah Arendt have seen as the possible interconnections of this brutality to the racial violence of the Third Reich. As a result, the taboo breaking power of images such as Uncle Rudi and Mr Heyde, the confrontation with the Nazi past that they embody cannot necessarily be disentwined from the sexual politics of Two Lovers nor the uncomfortable confrontation with the Western construction of the African 'other' epitomised by Richter's re-appropriation of Riefenstahl. For these reasons Richter's provocations of the 1960s, often shaded in grey and frequently cascaded in a disconcerting ambivalence remain singular evocations of the 'Heart of Darkness' beating beneath the veneer of European civilization.
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Larissa Allwork

'Fade to Grey: Review of Gerhard Richter exhibition (2012).

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