Gerhard Richter

He loves freedom and needs order. He’s a shy person and a great painter – Gerhard Richter.

picture alliance/ZB

There‘s simply no end to the record prices. To begin with, almost 10 million euros were paid for Two Couples. Then it was 12 million for Candle. In autumn 2011 his Abstract Painting – 849-3 sold for the equivalent of 15 million euros. All of this is shocking news for Gerhard Richter. He is indisputably the most important German artist of the present; he celebrated his 80th birthday in February 2012, and he thinks the astronomical figures that are being paid for his art are “absolutely absurd”. No matter how enormous his success, or whether the collectors, museums and critics are falling over themselves with praise – Gerhard Richter still remains true to himself in his old age. He was never one of those power and action painters who immediately hurl every inspiration at the canvas. Richter is more restrained and calm. His response to the entire hullabaloo: modesty.

I once visited him in Cologne, at his house with the white plastered façade and not a single window overlooking the street. That’s the way he likes it, secluded from the world. He’s a great artist and a shy person. His light steps approached the door to reveal a slim man who briefly smiled, cleared his throat and then led the way inside. The smell of paint filled his studio, but there were no brushes or tubes of colour lying around. The floor was an impeccable grey, not a single stain disturbed the orderliness. Everything was neatly sorted, tidied up and put away; everything was under control. This too is part of the artist’s essence. His art is never noisy, it never gesticulates, and it never ignites a visual inferno. It’s more like looking through a pair of foggy spectacles at a world shrouded in a delicate mist. Richter refuses direct access, even to himself. His dislike of superficiality soon led him to discover the camera, his peephole to reality. He takes photographs, some of which he transforms into large-scale oil paintings: landscapes, flowers, candles and scenes from his family. They are often pictures from an inner world, and you can sense the emotion that stimulated their inception. But they refuse to concede any sentimentality. Richter casts a blur over his pictures, like a protective varnish that shields them from misinterpretations. He shifts his images into the realm of approximation; he expresses emotion without exposing it.

This ambivalence is demanding and arduous. His abstract works are much easier to create. Although they too express his moods and emotions, he has to be less wary about direct self exposure. In the abstracts his feelings are captured in strokes, smears, blobs and flakes of colour. Sometimes they look like wildly jagged musical scores. And as with music, which conjures up atmospheres, recounts tales, Richter sees his abstractions as a means of imparting things for which there are no concrete motifs. He has often been compared with a chameleon, an artistic grasshopper, testing the limits of photorealism only to plunge back into the enticing depths of colour. However, Richter is neither a formalist, nor is he someone who revels in changing fashions. He agonizes for ages in his search for the right expression. He is suspicious of spontaneity and gushing exuberance. He sees art as something serious, something that imparts truth. And this is what he meticulously pursues whilst wrestling with himself, because this is the only way he can work.

Born in Dresden, he felt the thrill of rigour early on when, at 16, he travelled with an amateur theatre, painted scenery and occasionally recorded his impressions with watercolours. That was when he began to feel this special passion that he never wanted to lose. At first he was a placard artist at a weaving mill. Later, he attended the art academy in Dresden, where schooling was strict – in the right way to draw and the right way to think. In the eyes of the GDR’s ruling elite, art was primarily propaganda. The official doctrine was Social Realism, which Richter duly followed. But his doubts grew after travelling to the democratic West in 1959, visiting the documenta in Kassel and experiencing Pollock, Fontana and the freedom of art. Seized by this freedom, he emigrated to Düsseldorf in 1961 and began a new life. But at first, this new life wasn’t really his. For a good year he painted, dribbled and splattered with paint in a determined effort to make up for all the experiences he had missed. Then came his auto da fé: he piled up his pictures in the courtyard of Düsseldorf’s art academy and set fire to the funeral pyre. From now on he was an artist emerging from a void. He had freed himself from everything that could possibly hold him back – the myth of modern autonomy had come true. At least, that’s what Richter hoped at the time. He wanted to liberate himself from the constraints of political art forever.

But, as it happened, his first exhibition was entitled “A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism”, which clearly illustrated that he wasn’t finding it quite so easy to leave his own past behind. It was like a carnival of art designed to drive out the winter daemons of aesthetics and stir up the scene in the West. But Richter soon realized that he wasn’t the right kind of person for happenings, and he was useless at playing the shaman or the dandy. To this day he detests artists who turn themselves into hyped-up cult figures. Maybe he simply envies their blatant self-love, because he himself has always been plagued by scruples, believed that others are far more talented, and he still wrestles with his own skills. But what annoys him most about the self-appointed icons of art is that they use their works as vehicles for broadcasting their proclamations. Whenever he senses a trace of ideology, the desire to seduce and intoxicate the masses, he immediately withdraws. The lessons he learned in his GDR years still cling to him, and he is well aware of their significance. This explains his careful weighing up, and why he is wary of revelation. Richter is not intent on dictating truths with his pictures. They are constantly involved in a search for inner brokenness, and this inner brokenness is his own.

However, rather than celebrating this inner conflict, he tends to suffer under it: he laments the deep crisis in art, the triumph of banality. Nothing is more important to him than his freedom, and yet he detests arbitrariness, the loss of all norms. Art has a weightier assignment. In this respect Richter is very conventional, shaped by the old ideals that still see the museum as a place of education and enlightenment. Richter wants autonomy, but coupled with commitment; he wants to be free but integrated. And he lives this German combination of contradictions more than any other artist of his generation.

Nowadays art academies no longer teach drawing, and anyone can call themselves an artist. This annoys him intensely, because he works with clear sets of rules, knows what it takes to be an artist of the modern age. And because he himself constantly endeavours to question and reinterpret these principles, he is irritated by artists who flout all rules along with the history of art. Whenever he circumvents the taboos of modern art, when he paints a rolling landscape or a breathtakingly yellow bouquet of tulips, these expeditions are always border explorations. He only dares to push such boundaries, because he knows he is safe within a controllable system of parameters. His freedom requires order. Only from this basis can he strive for something that is scorned in art: beauty. Painting like Vermeer or Velasquez, this longing remains a driving force, even though he knows that he cannot allow himself to fulfil this desire. There is, after all, photography which can depict everything far more accurately, making the painted picture superfluous.

But sometimes a painting can achieve more than any photograph. Richter’s series on the dead RAF terrorists in Stammheim prison was based on photographs, but it was only as paintings that they acquired their controversial impact. People on the Left accused Richter of wanting to expropriate their martyrs; people on the Right feared that the dead would become objects of worship. The pictures were like an ideological lightning conductor, a focus for discharging tensions, and Richter liked that. But he wasn’t interested in repetition. He doesn’t see himself as a painter of the political dimension, nor is he the kind of artist you could commission to paint a picture on the theme of terrorism or genetic engineering. At a time when the distant rumblings of the theoretical storms accompanying documenta 2012 can already be discerned, Richter prefers to hang eight milky-grey panels of glass in his studio. You could say he’s practising the art of silence.

It doesn’t bother him if people call him a conservative. His family is important to him and so are morals. He is also a self-declared friend of Catholics. He even designed a brightly coloured glass window for Cologne Cathedral. Although he hasn’t joined the ranks of believers, because his life has immunized him too strongly against all forms of worship, he nevertheless allows himself to be led by the hope of deliverance. He has already designed a cross, and even if everybody says he’s gone crazy again, he is determined to cherish it. It’s a sign of his faith, the belief that art can console and uplift, that one day it will overcome all inner turmoil and strife. And this is worth far more to Gerhard Richter than all the many millions that are being paid for his pictures at the auctions.

Hanno Rauterberg is editor of the features section of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and author of the bestseller Und das ist Kunst?!