Cologne / DPA
Every time one meets Gerhard Richter, something doesn’t seem to add up. Is this “Europe’s greatest painter,” as the New York Times has called him? Or the “Picasso of the 21st Century,” as the Guardian says? The most expensive artist, the most influential painter? A superstar?
He just doesn’t appear to match such superlatives. Nondescript is the appearance of this small, thin, grey man. A beard clipped short, large glasses. Somebody you could easily pass without noticing. He’s charmingly reserved towards people he doesn’t know well, and he has never got used to being the centre of attention – even now that he has turned 85.
Other German artists are different: Sigmar Polke will provoke and even insult collectors; Markus Luepertz wears garish jewellery and walks around with a skull-topped cane; Joerg Immendorff lives excessively, and once stood before a judge for his cocaine consumption.
But Gerhard Richter? To many, he is the personification of old-fashioned German virtues of order, hard work, discipline.
Richter’s studio is located in a low-lying brick building resembling a bunker in the wealthy Hahnwald neighbourhood of Cologne, an area where TV personalities and other celebrities drive Porsches and Jaguars.
Behind the building is his house, where he lives with his third wife and former student, Sabine Moritz, and their 11-year-old son Theodor. Richter vehemently denies accounts that he is one of Germany’s wealthiest people, but there is no doubting that he is well-off, given the record prices that his works fetch at auctions. He has worked hard for his wealth, and still does. He is in his studio every day. Cologne became his place of residence more or less by chance. Born in Dresden in 1932, he fled then-Communist East Germany in 1961 and became a professor at the art academy of Dusseldorf, just downriver from Cologne.
A popular form of cartoon in Germany is the one “ohne Worte” – without words – where the illustration speaks for itself. The same can be applied to Richter. He won’t discuss his works. He speaks even less about himself. And when he does talk with a journalist, it can very well happen that he will later change his mind and not permit his remarks to be published.
It could very well be that it is precisely this aura of mysteriousness that has established his status, in his own lifetime, as one of the greatest ever in the history of art.
At the outset of his career in the 1960s, many people were talking about the end of painting. If painting was about realism, then it was surely inferior to photography, so the talk back then. And meanwhile other styles were starting to lose their lustre. Then came Gerhard Richter. Many art historians credit him with having contributed most strongly in providing new significance to painting. He took up old, well-worn visual themes – landscapes, lakes, portraits, still-lifes and historical pictures – and did them in a
completely new way.
One new technique was that of smearing over the canvas, the most prominent case being his famous “Ema (Nude on a Staircase).” The full frontal female nude appears blurred, out of focus as if behind a transparent veil. Viewing Richter’s most-admired work comes free of charge. It is a 19-metre high window in the southern transept of the Cologne Cathedral.
While professing a sympathy for the Church, he says he is an atheist, and so he could not fulfill the cathedral’s original commission, a painting of Christian martyrs of the 20th Century. Instead, he created an abstract image comprised of 11,263 coloured stain-glass squares of 72 different colours. Their positioning was determined by a random generator.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner was not thrilled, saying the resulting work was too random, that the colour combinations could be interpreted as showing the power of arbitrariness.
But other visitors see it differently, and even those professing to be atheists say they can experience a certain spirituality in the cathedral when, perhaps on a cloudy day, the sun suddenly breaks through and illuminates the 100-square-metre window. Then, not only are the glass panes a brilliantly lit up, but also the entire interior of the massive cathedral is bathed in a kaleidoscope of fantastic colours.
Even the reticent artist himself is satisfied with this particular work. When he was asked just before the window’s dedication in August 2007 how he felt standing before the window, Richter said without a moment’s hesitation: “This is a beautiful feeling.”