Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gerhard Richter: Panorama (an exhibition)

Visited at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 16 February 2012.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama. Neue und Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. February 12, 2012 – May 13, 2012. - Was first on display at Tate Modern, London, UK. October 6, 2011 – January 8, 2012. - Will also be exhibited at Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France. June 6, 2012 – September 24, 2012.

The official introduction at 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 Rothko, Twombly 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" (The official introduction of Tate Modern)

This is the first art exhibition I visit after my traffic accident 11 weeks ago, but also otherwise I want to start anew, admitting more frankly than previously that I'm an ignoramus and a schoolboy in these matters. I want to start seeing visual art again like a child.

The digital transition has completely changed the appearance of the moving images and as a movie critic, historian and programmer I have to learn new parameters in assessing visual art. The most common criteria for digital cinema are brightness and sharpness, and I'm curious to find out about brighness and sharpness in the history of art.

Gerhard Richter is a good starting point. For 50-60 years he has been an indefatigable explorer in industrial and modern art, and he has made East German advertising posters, East German art on demand, abstract expressionism, capitalist realism, photorealism, pure colour squares, absolute nonfigurative images (with pure single-colour surfaces), mirrorworks, and glassworks.

"A crystal clarity" of Richter's photorealism is mentioned in the Tate Modern introduction, but usually Richter's photograph-based paintings are not crystal sharp at all. On the contrary, Richter usually transforms photographs into something blurred, although there are also sharp lines in some images. Brightness is mostly in evidence in his pure colour studies, but usually Richter works hard to avoid brightness.

I read just a little about Richter before and after this great exhibition, and I could hardly relate at all to the things I read, for instance the use of the word "beauty" above. "Beauty" has usually been irrelevant in modern art since WWI, and Richter is no exception. In traditional aesthetics "sublime" (in the meanings of awesome, overwhelming, horrible, etc.) covered phenomena that were not beautiful yet aesthetically magnificent, but even that concept is today little used and almost always misunderstood.

Richter reacts to the world of horror he has experienced: Nazi Germany, East Germany, capitalist realism, modern wars, and terrorism (Stammheim, and 11 September). He has in-your-face images about them, but the same sense is on display even in his abstract works, and the general impression of his exhibition is that of a deep malaise, of a world gone awry. There are many works in the exhibition which are intentionally ugly.

The breath of death is almost overwhelming, but there are small tokens of hope or redemption such as Richter's signature candles.

The Neue Nationalgalerie exhibition is well mounted, and it pays to go through it several times, because there is symmetry and meaning in the architecture. For me the most impressive artworks were the mirrors, the glass sheets, and the empty frames. They add a meta-dimension to the exhibition, and they become vehicles of reflections (in all meanings of the word) of our perception. They are also about the distortion of reflection.

I was impressed and depressed by the exhibition. It is reportedly becoming a huge hit. When we visited it on a Thursday evening it was popular but not overcrowded.

Most of the newspaper articles I happened to see were about the record sums paid for Richter's art at Sotheby's and elsewhere. It seems that Richter finds this as baffling as the crisis of the world economy. But investments in Richter's paintings are well considered, because his work is never trivial.

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