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 and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker