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Gerhard Richter at the Tate Modern

Spanning nearly five decades, and coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday, Gerhard Richter: Panorama is a major retrospective exhibition that groups together significant moments of his remarkable career.

Since the 1960s, Gerhard Richter has immersed himself in a rich and varied exploration of painting. Gerhard Richter: Panorama highlights the full extent of the artist’s work, which has encompassed a diverse range of techniques and ideas. It includes realist paintings based on photographs, colourful gestural abstractions such as the squeegee paintings, portraits, subtle landscapes and history paintings.

Gerhard Richter was one of the first German artists to reflect on the history of National Socialism, creating paintings of family members who had been members, as well as victims of, the Nazi party. Continuing his historical interest, he produced the 15-part work October 18 1977 1988, a sequence of black and white paintings based on images of the Baader Meinhof group. Richter has continued to respond to significant moments in history throughout his career; the final room of the exhibition includes September 2005, a painting of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.

Lovers of the epic beauty of RothkoTwombly and Hodgkin will have much to enjoy, as will those who appreciate striking portraiture or the crystal-clear precision of photorealism.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama is organised by Tate Modern in association with Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Centre Pompidou, Paris

Gerhard Richter is a German visual artist, who has simultaneously produced abstract and photorealistic painted works, as well as photographs and glass pieces [undermining the concept of the artist’s obligation to maintain a single cohesive style], on February 9, 1932. His family life, begun in the midst of Hitler’s Nazi occupation was, average middle-class, described by Richter as “simple, orderly, structured – mother playing the piano and the father earning money.”

The years immediately following the end of World War II were difficult, but Richter has fond memories because of his passion about literature, and new-found access to books previously forbidden under Nazi control. Richter explains: “It was very nasty, [but] when the Russians came to our village and expropriated the houses of the rich who had already left or were driven out, they made libraries for the people out of these houses. And that was fantastic.” Richter read, “Cesare Lombroso’s Genius and Madness, Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Feuchtwanger, all that middle-class literature. ” Richter’s mother encouraged her son’s interest in Nietzsche, Goethe, Schiller and others, suggesting supplies of illustrated books prompted Richter’s first drawings. Richter recalls studying art “from books and from the little folios with art prints that you used to get then – I remember Diego Velázquez, Albrecht Dürer, Lovis Corinth […] It was simply a matter of what was around, what we saw and bought for ourselves.”

As a teen, Gerhard’s passion for art began in earnest, having an early epiphany during an eight-week summer camp organized by the Russian-controlled State, where “for the first time he spent a lot of time drawing”. One of the first drawings Richter recalls and acknowledges producing as a young man in 1946 was a nude figure copied from a book, which his parents are said to have reacted to with pride and embarrassment. He recalls also having made landscapes and self-portraits, and perhaps more unusually, often working in watercolors. He left school after tenth grade and apprenticed as an advertising and stage-set painter, before studying at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. In 1948 he terminated the higher professional school in Zittau, and, between 1949 and 1951, was trained there in writing as well as in stage and advertising painting. He finally began his study at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1951. His teachers were Karl von Appen, Ulrich Lohmar and Will Grohmann. In these early days of his career he prepared a wall painting (“Communion with Picasso”, 1955) for the refectory of this Academy of Arts as part of his B.A. A further mural followed within the Hygiene-Museum (German Hygiene Museum) with the title “Lebensfreude” (“Joy of life”) for his diploma.

Both paintings had been painted over for ideological reasons after Richter escaped from East to West Germany (two months before the building of the Berlin Wall); after German reunification, the wall painting Joy of life (1956) was uncovered in two places in the stairway of the German Hygiene Museum, and after the millennium these two uncovered windows with a look at the Joy of Life had been newly recovered. From 1957 to 1961 Richter worked as a master trainee in the academy and took orders for the former state of the GDR. During this time he worked intensively at murals (Arbeiterkampf, which means Worker fight), on paintings in oil (e.g. portraits of the East German actress Angelica Domroese and of Richter’s first wife Ema), on various self portraits and furthermore on a panorama of Dresden with the neutral name Stadtbild (Townscape, 1956).

When he arrived in West Germany, Richter began to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Karl Otto Götz together with Sigmar Polke,Konrad Lueg and Gotthard Graubner. With Polke and Lueg he introduced the term Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalistic Realism) as an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial shorthand of advertising. This title also referred to the realist style of art known as Socialist Realism, then the official art doctrine of the Soviet Union, but it also commented upon the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism. Later, Lueg founded the galleryKonrad Fischer in Düsseldorf.

Richter taught as a visiting professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, in Hamburg, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and returned in 1971 to Düsseldorf Art Academy as a professor for over 15 years.

In 2005 Richter, in an interview by the German political magazine Der Spiegel, wondered why citizens of Salzburg did not protest a sculpture by Markus Lüpertz, and described the work as expressing the deprivation of public art sponsorship in Germany. The sculpture, an homage to Mozart, was promptly attacked by a right-wing art activist from Austria and badly damaged.

Nearly all of Richter’s work demonstrates both the space of illusion that seems natural and the physical activity and material of painting—as mutual interferences. For Richter, reality is the combination of new attempts to understand—to represent; in his case, to paint—the world surrounding us. His painting style is generally viewed as abstract. He is a highly skilled realist and figurative painter. In fact, his recent works are derived from hyper-realist productions, or reproductions in some cases, of photographic images, where details down to strands of hair and image pixelations are reproduced, only to be painted over as a show of Richter’s artist’s hand.

By 2004, Richter’s annual earning turnover was $120m (£65m). According to artnet.com, an online firm that tracks the art market, $76.9m worth of Richter’s work was sold at auction in 2010. Richter’s paintings have been flowing steadily out of Germany since the mid-1990s even as certain important German collectors — Frieder Burda, Josef Fröhlich, Georg Böckmann, and Ulrich Ströher — have held on to theirs.

Richter’s candle paintings were the first to command high auction prices. In February 2008, Sotheby’s sold Kerze (1983) for £7,972,500 ($15 million) in London. His 1982 Kerze (Candle) sold for £10.5 million ($16.5 million) at Christie’s London on October 14, 2011, setting a new auction record for Richter.

In February 2008, Christie’s London set a first record for Richter’s “capitalist realism” pictures from the 1960s by selling the painting Zwei Liebespaare (1966) for £7,300,500 ($14.3 million) to Stephan Schmidheiny. In 2010, the Weserburg Modern Art Museum in Bremen, Germany, decided to sell Richter’s 1966 painting Matrosen (Sailors) in a November auction held by Sotheby’s, where it brought $13 million.

Another coveted group of works is the “Abstrakte Bilder” series, particularly those made after 1988, which are finished with a large squeegee rather than a brush or roller. At Pierre Bergé & Associés in July 2009, Richter’s 1979 oil painting Abstraktes Bild exceeded its estimate, selling for €95,000 ($136,000). Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, of 1990 was made the top price of 7.2 million pounds, or about $11.6 million, at a Sotheby’s sale in February 2011 to a bidder who was said by dealers to be an agent for the New York dealer Larry Gagosian. In November 2011, Sotheby’s was selling a group of colorful abstract canvases by Richter, including Abstraktes Bild, a dreamy 1997 canvas of pinks and blues that was estimated at $9 million to $12 million. It made a record price for the artist at auction when a telephone bidder paid $20.8 million. When asked about amounts like that Richter said “It’s just as absurd as the banking crisis. It’s impossible to understand and it’s daft!”

In New York, Richter is represented by Marian Goodman, his primary dealer since 1985.

“One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is idiocy.” (From Richter, ‘Notes 1973’, in The Daily Practice of Painting, p. 78.)

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