Richter has been compared to Picasso, for his style is ever-changing. His ‘photo-paintings’, previously on show at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, are among his most famous works. This exhibition, however, offers a new perspective on the German artist’s career since he began working in the 1960s.
The idea of the panorama was at work in many senses. Wandering around the top floor of the Pompidou, not only can you take in many phases of Richter’s work in a single glance, you can also do a spot of people watching in various mirrors and glasses, and then look out over Paris. This is not to say that the paintings themselves were not enthralling; Richter seems to direct our gaze back onto the real world, and frequently reminds us that painting can never capture the world adequately.
Richter’s work is particularly striking for the contrast between the traditional and more abstract works: enormous colour charts and ‘overpainted’ photographs. A master of precision, he has also created immense canvases across which the paint is smeared, and then ripped away in an act of deconstruction, which conjured up images of an artist less at ease with his work. Indeed, when most disillusioned, Richter has painted over pictures completely. These grey blocks are nonetheless included among his works, reinforcing his idea that “Pictures which […] contain a meaning […] are bad pictures.”
Once you appreciate that the technique is often more important than the result, even the most abstract becomes interesting, without the sense that you need to make a particular (and probably pretentious) interpretation. Ultimately, however, the ‘photo-paintings’, which reflect upon personal and historical events during Richter’s life, remain the most powerful. Some are uncannily realistic, others blurred to the point of distortion. The image of the artist’s smiling aunt Marianne becomes particularly haunting when you learn that, as a schizophrenic, she was sterilized and then euthanized by the Nazis.
Other works address death even more directly, showing the bodies of the Red Army Faction members found dead in their prison cells in 1977. These paintings become darker, a mass of blurred grey forms, suggesting the difficulty of showing such scenes. Others, such as the candle paintings, capture a luminosity to counter this darkness, and are so lifelike that you could look at them for as long as you might look at a real candle flickering.
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