Home > A closer look > An early and a late work by … Gerhard Richter
An early and a late work by … Gerhard Richter
A closer look 19 Jan 2014

An early and a late work by … Gerhard Richter

On the occasion of the sale of his work Wand (Wall) at Sotheby’s London on 12 February 2014, and after Boltanski, Artsper looks this week at the case of the German painter Richter. His incessant returns between abstraction and figuration, his technical mastery of the pictorial material, make him one of the most expensive living artists on the market, although absent from artprice’s annual report because he was born in 1923 (and therefore considered a modern artist, yes.)

If the study of Boltanski’s case had revealed a certain continuity in the artist’s practice, Richter’s case is different. Despite the permanence of the medium of painting, the technique and the scope of his work have changed dramatically.

Richter mural of the German Hygiene Museum, Dresden, 1956

Lebenfreude, 1956


Cage, 2006

During his last year of study at the Dresden school of art, where classical and academic studies were essential and the daily studies and drawings of nature were regarded as the culmination of the artistic genius, the young Richter got a commission from the Deutsches Hygienemuseum, on the theme of the joy of living (Lebensfreude). Very well received by the officials of the museum, the work was described as “a joyous celebration of a socialist system freed from fascism”. The work is extremely conventional and without relief, the human figures are robust, the children perform healthy activities and the group on the left, in the foreground, slightly evokes Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Everything transpires an academic influence on which Richter is still extremely dependent. The painter is not interested in making a living from official commissions, and will soon take his distance from this early style.

Richter’s career was celebrated in 2011 by a retrospective at the Pompidou Center and he was acclaimed as a great figurative artist of the 1980s; The artist is almost 90 and the 21st century marks a shift towards abstraction in his practice. The Cage series from 2006 is without any doubt his most beautiful abstract achievement. It was produced as a tribute to American composer John Cage, that the artist has never met ; he declared in a 2004 interview that “it is grossly in Cage’s style who said: I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. I have always thought that this was a wonderful quote. It is the best option that we have in order to be able to continue moving forward”. Even if we thought that Richter’s talent was wasted and perverted by his artistic education, the artist, thanks to his insatiable desire to explore the language of painting, has been able to reinvent his work, and today he is still one of the forerunners of contemporary art.

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