Tate Modern‘s tremendous survey of the German master Gerhard Richter opens with a painting of second world war bombers shedding their ordnance from that other world above the clouds. It is clearly based on a photograph. The planes are as small as children’s toys, the bombs no more than tiny hyphens falling weightlessly through the sky and one barely notices the dark speck dropping far below: a hit plane, a pilot crashing to his death.
The painting delivers this horror with a softly blurred touch. The planes are as spectral as ghosts, the Flying Fortress markings indistinct in the silver-gray paint. The atmosphere is something like a silent movie, or a dream, so that one has to pay close attention – even as the picture pulls in the opposite direction – to deduce that the original photograph must have been taken from a US bomber like the one that is plunging down towards the doomed Germans below. Death is elsewhere. The painting asks you to think for yourself.
It is possible that Richter himself heard these planes. Born in Dresden in 1932, he survived the allied bombings and eventually crossed to the west in 1961. Although his paintings partake of the cool, mechanical exactitude of the photographs they transcribe in various ways, they are characterised by scepticism, distance and doubt. One might say that the painter rarely fails to see both sides.
This variety is considerable, from the distinctive photo-paintings with their supersmooth blur that have made him the world’s most revered (and expensive) living painter, to the miasmic grey abstracts, “like photographs of nothing”; from the outsize colour charts to the colossal magnifications of his own brushstrokes – always derived from photographs. But by far the most distinctive is the famous blur, where the image is brushed across in delicate sweeps or dissolves into an almost imperceptible sfumato, taking the image with it – distanced, ungraspable, lost to the past or beyond us.
Tate Modern is showing 50 years of work, from the early black-and-white history paintings to the rapturous still lifes of today. One sees as never before that this blur is always different, and always material to the picture’s content. The face famous from a zillion paparazzi shots dwindles to nothing in a gray shimmer; the long dead are retrieved from oblivion in cobweb-fine paint. Everything carries a metaphor.
One of the dead is Richter’s Aunt Marianne, young, blond, smiling as she props her baby nephew Gerhard on a pillow. She is smoothed, soothed, by gentle lateral brushstrokes which blend the two figures – his soft hair with her sweet face – as if to unite them once more.
Marianne was sterilised and later murdered by the Nazis.
The image, taken from a family album, is out of focus, something like a memory one cannot quite summon through the veils of time and consciousness. Its obverse is the controversial painting of Uncle Rudi, grinning proudly in his SS uniform (a painting Richter donated to the war memorial at Lidice in the Czech Republic). Here the brush blends Rudi with the wall behind him in horizontal striations evocative of barbed wire; repressed memory given a face.
The artist once said that all paintings are analogies, not just representations, and the wisdom of this truth is made apparent throughout the show. One sees it in the images based on photographs of bombed cities, heaps of rubble that are all but illegible to the eye, a disintegration re-enacted in the paintings themselves. At a distance quite figurative, they fall apart as you approach into areas of total incoherence.
And one even sees it in the all-grey abstracts of the 70s, so implacably neutral, made at a time when Richter had almost lost faith in his painting altogether. But he continued, working the surfaces with tiny incidents so that one cannot completely turn away.
Because he is such a virtuoso painter, as well as monastically reserved – the self-portraits are almost completely effaced – Richter’s art has always seemed to arrive out of mystery. What is he thinking, what does he feel about his subjects: every painting trails a question. What are his skull pictures: memento mori or soft kitsch? What are his candles, so blurred and yet bright: votive or secular? At face value, they are simply irreducibly beautiful.
There are paintings here that approach the dead end of art: huge enlargements of brushstrokes prophylactically sealed behind surfaces flawless as laminate; the squeegee paintings which repudiate all idea of expressive touch; close-up photographs of oil paint transcribed in oil paint. The strict chronology of the show (and its desire to present Richter whole) admits too many such works.
But they lead one insistently back, I suppose, to the question of interpretation and this turns out to be less about Richter’s use of photographs – images at one remove – than the selection of those images itself.
The choice becomes, in part, the subject of the painting: Uncle Rudi, Aunt Marianne, his family and friends, the heroes of culture, the villains of war, his wife nursing their baby; these are not meaningless or trivial. And what is, and will surely remain, the most inflammatory of all Richter’s works – the 15 Baader-Meinhof paintings – must be understood at the very least as an attention to controversial history.
The arrests of the gang members, the police photographs, the televised funeral with its horizontal interference patterns: each image is on the verge of indeterminacy. The painting of Andreas Baader’s book-lined cell is the visual equivalent of a shudder, top to bottom; the body of Gudrun Ensslin, rope marks round her neck, tells one nothing about her death (suicide or murder?). Eye and understanding are equally baffled and thwarted.
But notice the portrait of Ensslin as a child pensively slipped in among them.
Equivocal restraint is Richter’s great characteristic, his principle, the moral of his approach. But something alters, or distils, when he paints from photographs he has taken himself. He snaps his daughter reading a letter, meditative in the sunshine, and she becomes a Vermeer. He photographs the German landscape and you plunge deep into its painted richness; a vase of yellow tulips fairly burns with joy.
But for sheer unqualified beauty, go to the last room of this show with its garlands and snowscapes and transcendent abstractions, white on white on light. Richter, at almost 80, is passionately drawn to the experiences of the eye and the light that makes everything visible. If these paintings are analogies of anything specific, it is our human love of looking at the world.
The final painting in the room, superbly curated, shows the end of life. It is not immediately obvious that somewhere among the brilliant blue of the painting, and the sky on that day, are the Twin Towers as the aeroplanes hit. That blue is besmirched, dragged back and forth with gray so that one can hardly see what is there before one’s eyes. It is a stupendous painting: incomprehensible, disintegrating, vanishing into itself. And it is the very thing one has been waiting for all along – the show’s bared heart.
The Observer, Sunday 9 October 2011