Contrasting with the noisy exuberance of 4900 Colors are these two tranquil portraits of young women, both of which radiate charm and intimacy. Richter’s handling of the medium of photography, and the familiar character of his subject, have here yielded pictures with warm hues and a gentle lighting. These paintings based on personal visual sources are diametrically opposed to those created on the basis of material found in newspapers, as in Eight Student Nurses. Gerhard Richter has captured Betty in a twisting pose. She thereby leans towards the viewer, and her shoulder seems close enough to touch. Her hair, combed back into a loose plait, and the texture and floral pattern of her bath robe, are painted with extreme precision, while the background is monochrome and empty. Betty’s head faces resolutely towards the rear; what she is looking at, however, remains unclear. Through this simultaneous combination of physical proximity and a turning away, intimacy and distance combine in one figure: “The averted face”, thus Richter, “may be a somewhat hackneyed way to introduce a sense of mystery into the portrait, but the core emotion, surely, is one of painful regret related to loss and separation—something along those lines. But, of course, I was not aware of this when I painted it”.
From the cycle 18. Oktober 1977 (October 18, 1977), 1988
Richter’s Record Player painting has a particular function within the Baader-Meinhof Cycle. It is the only picture to show a single object—one that played a major role, however, in the events of October 18, 1977: the casing of the record player served Andreas Baader as a hiding place for the weapon that killed him. The banal object is charged with heightened significance given the way in which it was used, so that the record player becomes an important part of the events surrounding the deaths of the RAF members. This image thus assumes an explosive relevance that contrasts with the harmlessness of the still-life representation.
On a trip to Venice in 1972, Gerhard Richter was deeply impressed by Titian’s painting of the Annunciation, which he saw in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco: “I just wanted it for myself, for my apartment, so I decided to copy it, as far as I could. But I couldn’t even manage a semi-presentable copy. So then I painted five variations on the Annunciation that didn’t have much to do with Titian’s Annunciation but that I was quite happy with.”
In his five canvases, Richter has largely adopted the division, established in the original composition, into a left-hand pictorial zone with the angel and a right-hand zone with the Virgin. Even if the figures increasingly dissolve into abstract whirls of color, their link to the original motif is upheld by Richter’s adherence to reds, blues and blacks.
In contrast to the Eight Student Nurses, the Titian series is not about the search for the formal similarity of the subject, but about the relationship of a theme to the possibilities of its variations. Richter approaches the Renaissance composition with increasing degrees of abstraction. The canvas that is the most blurred of all is not the last in the series, however, but the second. The first and second versions thus establish the framework for the ‘missing’ intermediary stages. At the same time, the most abstract picture does not become the definitive result of the creative process, but one possible solution among many.
The realistic portraits in this eight-part cycle all center upon mother and child, who present themselves to the viewer from different sides, at times in intimate close-up. The paintings are based on personal photographs, but at the same time reveal links with the topos of the representation of the Virgin and Child, and in their iconography and subject bring into play the question of the relationship between tradition and present. Gerhard Richter worked on the surfaces to a varying extent, resulting in eight small pictures with differing textures and degrees of abstraction. According to the artist, it is “the same as with a piece of music: there are eight little sequences—soft ones, brash ones, whatever happens to emerge.” The eight paintings are united by their intimate subject and belong firmly together as a group, and yet the quality of focus, choice of angle and lighting mean that each portrait can be perceived as an independent, stand-alone work.
Counterpointing the monochrome gray surfaces is the small portrait of Ella, in which Gerhard Richter uses the technique of blurring. The reddish black background, the girl’s lowered head, and her pink shirt with its green collar swim out of focus behind an evenly worked surface. Richter, who first used this technique in the 1960s, later said in an interview: “The smudging makes the paintings a bit more complete. When they’re not blurred, so many details seem wrong, and the whole thing is wrong too. Then smudging can help make the painting invincible, surreal, more enigmatic.”
The twelve-part Wald cycle asserts itself on the boundary between figurative and abstract painting. Vertical and horizontal welts, lines and bands of paint structure the surfaces against shadowy backgrounds. Gouge marks that abruptly start and stop furrow the canvases. Spatial depth is evoked by means of superimposed layers. Dark and mysterious sceneries offer the viewer spaces full of potential new discoveries. The pictorial motif of the forest (the German word ‘Wald’ means ‘forest’ or ‘wood’) is strongly anchored in the age of German Romanticism, in particular. As an alternative world and a place of yearning that gives meaning to existence, the forest is a perfect vehicle of the irrational and mystical. The paintings of Gerhard Richter’s Wald cycle create an environment of complex emotions, in which the tension between feeling lost and feeling safe becomes acutely palpable. In these powerful canvases, the artistic act of creation and Richter’s searching and experimenting during the painting process can be visually retraced. Richter himself names the feel-ing of bewilderment as “the strongest motivation for and during painting. And the forest in general has a special significance, perhaps more so in Germany than anywhere else. You can lose your way in forests, feel deserted, but also secure, held fast in the bosom of the undergrowth. A fine Romantic subject.”