Recently, I visited an exhibit of Gerhard Richter’s works at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art. I was primarily intrigued by the photography and realistic painted works, and had gone with a naked eye, without initial research on the artist’s background or thematic elements of his art. Immediately I was astounded by the versatility in terms of media and style, as each room I entered surprised me with new elements. Reading the museum labels, I was immersed in the meaning and motivations of his art; I had to reexamine and step back to capture details which might not have occurred to me upon initial glance. Richter is not just one of Germany’s most renowned contemporary artists, but a man who has captured history in darkness in a way that invites viewers to both appreciate beauty and question human behavior and violence.
Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, thus the dreadful influence of the Third Reich is inevitable in his work. He has various works that indirectly entail the haunting reverberations of the Second World War, such as the seemingly joyous portrait of his relative, “Uncle Rudi” (1965). The context is that indeed the smiling and youthful officer died in the war, and the smeared paint accentuates the ghastly connotations that one may not notice in a quick glance. Another painting dabbled in a similar amalgamation of pleasant imagery with gut-wrenching pretext is “Aunt Marianne” (1965), which shows a mother tenderly holding her young child. This same woman was deemed schizophrenic and killed by the Nazis. Richter himself was part of Hitler’s Youth organisation while his father served in Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany. Therefore it is no surprise that the traumas are expressed through his unique artistic style; however, as they are inexplicit, he leaves it to the viewer to create personal interpretations, connecting through the relationship one forms with artworks rather than experience.
Fig. 1 “Uncle Rudi”
Fig. 2 “Aunt Marianne”
I myself fell into the trap of focusing on the beauty of his emphatic brushstrokes and deep, dark color imagery with rouge and green accents as I stood in front of four horizontally lined paintings, remarking to my companion in the museum,
“Isn’t this so cool?",
before taking a picture. Immediately after, I felt embarrassed by my naivete as I came closer and read the title: “Birkenau”.
“God! I really just stood here taking a picture for the sole aesthetics, didn't I…,” I whispered.
The paintings are based on four photographs of the Jewish prisoners in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, who were forced to scrap bodies killed by the gas chamber. His expression of the anti-semitic terror of the Holocaust reestablishes the necessary global conversation of justice and shines light on how art serves history.
Fig. 3 “Birkenau” series
I am a lover of both history and art, and when the two subjects collide to create something beautiful, yet thought-provoking and lasting, I believe as human beings we are able to learn and reflect through means other than textbooks. Richter is a genius of our time, and although the exhibition has come to a close, I would encourage you, reader, to take a moment and appreciate his art and pose questions about history within yourself.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “The Dark Revelations of Gerhard Richter.” The New Yorker, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/16/the-dark-revelations-of-gerhard-richter.