Gerhard Richter scales the heights

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Tate Modern's major retrospective of Gerhard Richter shows why he is one of Europe's greatest living painters, says Adrian Hamilton

Tate Modern is fearfully pleased to be launching a major touring retrospective of the German contemporary artist, Gerhard Richter.

And so it should be. Now approaching 80, Richter is one of the true giants of the European painting scene, an artist who perhaps more than any other has tried to test and prove the value of painting in the modern age: painting over photographs, trying to find the overlap between the abstract and figurative, making it a medium of political commentary and constantly testing painting's limits in form, texture and possibility. Indeed, to some critics he has appeared as the most important painter of today. And if that appears a bit too hyperbolic, then at least it could be said of Richter that he is the European artist most able to challenge the pre-eminence of his American contemporaries.

Not that he shares the same culture, for all his devotion to the United States. Where American art is bursting, buoyant and above all emphatic, Richter's has always been an exercise in the contradictions, the ambiguities and the doubts about what art can and cannot do in an age of fragmentation and uncertainty. It's partly his background, of course. Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter, who claims to remember the Dresden bombing during the war, studied art at the Dresden Academy of Arts under the communists before moving to Düsseldorf in West Germany a few months before the building of the Berlin wall.

He first came to notice – and in some ways it is the work for which he is still best known – for taking photographs and reworking them as paintings. The Sixties in which he started as a full-time artist was the era of Pop art and popular imagery. Richter, who had received his first technical training in Dresden as an advertising and stage-set painter, took up the baton with the ironically named Capitalist Realism movement (no country has created quite as many art movements as Germany), a play on Socialist Realism. But in the hands of this East European it was used less as a political statement than a form of experimentation into what painting could do which photography and new technology of themselves could not.

From early on, and since, he has continuously tried to extend the limits of an idea, projecting a photograph on to canvas, repainting it and even re-photographing it again, or, as he later developed his ideas, photographing a painting, or a minute part of it, and magnifying it to the point at which it becomes a work of art in itself. In other hands it might have appeared just fanciful. In Richter's brush it becomes a means of lifting and changing the original image, to give it movement or confusion and ambiguity, and eliding the figurative with the abstract.

Early on there is real bite as the young artist faces up to the past as well as the division of his country. A picture of his father with a cat makes a mockery of the old man (who ceased communication with his son after he departed for the West) by exaggerating the hair and facial features. The macabre is again used, but this time with much greater sensitivity, in a portrait of his aunt Marianne, a depressive eliminated by the Nazis as mentally defective, while a standing photograph of his uncle Rudi, a Nazi war hero, is reworked against a grim backdrop of wall and barracks-type building to suggest war crimes and the pose of a man ready to be shot.

Later on, as well as doing sea, sky and landscapes using the same techniques, he takes pictures of bombed-out cities repainted in garish grey to represent the destruction of war, just as more recently he has reprinted aerial shots from Allied bombers of German cities to show the gap between the view from above and the havoc that will be wreaked below: the limits of photography against the imaginative leap that can be given it by painting.

The use of the still image repainted in black and white is developed with greatest effect in the series he did in the late Eighties of the arrests and deaths in prison of the Baader-Meinhof group. The Tate would have these as some of the most profound artistic political comments of the post war. They are certainly powerful, the images pinioned by paint to considerable emotional effect. And yet it is hard to see Richter as a great political commentator in the way of Goya or Picasso. You can see in the painting Richter did of 9/11, September of 2005. It's from a photograph of the World Trade Centre as the attacks occurred, but without the fireball dramatics most often portrayed. Eschewing the obvious, it is a work of great sympathy, with the grey and brown smeared across the upright building and the blue of the sky, but not of great moment. But then, while good art should reflect its times, it does not need to directly comment on them to be great.

The most dramatic moment in this show comes not with the representational but with the sudden explosion of colour abstract in the early 1980s. Richter had pursued the abstract through the single colour grey for some time before, describing the colour, typically, as the "welcome and only possible equivalent of indifference, non-commitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape." The statement is a tease. In fact, his exploration of grey is study in shape through texture and commitment through the manipulation of that texture by brush and scraper.

He had also been influenced by the Pop art of the time to take an interest in colour in the Seventies, through taking colour paint charts and developing the basic primary colours and grey into a hundred different shades randomly arranged. But then at the beginning of the Eighties he exploded in a burst of large-scale abstracts that played paint and colour in a galaxy of technique and juxtaposition. The Tate has a room of works from the period that at first shocks, then intrigues and finally seduces. And it is these abstracts, becoming more monumental in the succeeding years, their surfaces wiped by a "squeegee" that scrapes off layers, leaving smears, which provide some of the most exciting works in the show. Deploying not just different palettes – white being one of the most imaginative – but also different bases in aluminium and "aludiboard", Richter builds up layers of paint only to partially destroy them by scraping and even cutting the canvas.

The exhibition climaxes in six of the Cage paintings he made in 2006/7 while listening to the music of John Cage. They are masterpieces of the majestic, layered works in which almost every technique from the brush to the scraper is used to give them rhythm. Like the electronic notation of sounds they move across the canvas in blurred and random lines. The Tate is fortunate to have them on long-term loan. They should be exhibited alongside its Mark Rothkos, contrasting studies in abstract projection, the one of colour, the other of surface.

The Tate calls the exhibition – which has been jointly staged with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Staatliche Museum in Berlin – a Panorama, which is what it is, a synoptic view of the man and his work through his various themes and stages. What it covers is most of his history, what it misses is the way in which he has pursued his images through dozens and occasionally hundreds of variations. It illustrates the development, but not the obsessive way in which Richter likes to take an idea and then chase it through every possible avenue. Like the aerial view of Cologne prior to the bombing, it gives the picture but not necessarily the actuality. By any standard, Richter is a major contemporary artist. You can see how in this impressive show but not completely why.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) to 8 January

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit