Gerhard Richter is arguably one of the most famous, elusive, and respected living artists. He has had numerous exhibitions at the most prestigious galleries and museums in the world, was the subject of a documentary, and has more than a few monographs devoted to him. It’s only natural one can start to feel fatigue, and ask, “can I really learn anything new here”? It turns out the lessons are endless when it comes to Germany’s most revered artist. If his recent museum exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia is any indication, Richter is simultaneously one of the most dynamic technicians and an emotionally and historically contemplative painters of our time.
EntitledThe Life of Images, this exhibition shows the vast output of the artist along with his wide-reaching approach to painting. Included in the show are his monumental abstracts of elegant stripes or violent streaks, soft portraits and still life paintings, photographs, and bruising depictions of tumultuous post-war Germany. That long list still doesn’t fully cover the range of the artist’s oeuvre because rather than working diligently at evolving an art practice into a singular style, Richter has become synonymous with embracing all forms of western painting. The more impressive aspect is that he subsequently has become a master in every iteration. He is at a once a portraitist, a conceptual artist, a landscape painter, and a master of historical drama.
Marveling at the beautiful work and skill can satisfy any viewer (including me), but I have always wondered how much Richter’s German identity has played a role in this approach. For all of the beauty in the paintings, they feel deadly serious. I have never seen a Richter and had any desire to smile or laugh, and I think most individuals would agree with me. Having been born at the dawn of Nazi Germany, and then coming of age during the immediate aftermath of World War II, you can feel history and pain weighing on every perfect canvas. It also makes sense that Richter took up traditional methods as a means to an end; the German pioneers of Romanticism in the nineteenth-century were believers in technical mastery and emotional intensity. Those artists of Germany’s past perfectly capture the traumatic cultural moment that Richter lived through just over a century later.
Although this work was shown in far-off Australia, this visceral lesson in history and in art still resonates. Richter may have been reluctantly turned into a blue chip artist and living legend by the German state and auction houses around the world, but his work still has plenty to show us because of its timeless relevance and unflinching honesty.