Correspondent in Berlin
Gerhard Richter This week he did not attend the presentation of his paintings at the Old National Gallery in Berlin. On the loan of works from his foundation, he commented: “This is a wonderful event for me and a great start for our collaboration with Berlin.” The first of his works to land in the museum is one of the four that make up the monumental complex called the ‘Birkenau’ cycle, based on photographs of a Jewish prisoner from the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944. Photos showed guards, naked prisoners, and corpses lying on the ground. Horror can only be guessed from Richter’s images, because the artist covered the photos with dark layers of paint and made the motifs unrecognizable to keep all the horror in his memory. The work that once divided the German art world and with which Richter faced a moral demand of his generation, is now permanently moved to the Old National Gallery in Berlin. It will be followed by more than a hundred pieces with which Richter’s work is definitely linked to the German capital.
In the ‘Art Compass’ ranking, the Dresden painter, who lives in Cologne, has been the undisputed leader for the past 17 years. His works regularly fetch the best prices at auctions. Only these data would serve to explain the joy that the agreement has caused in Berlin, where in addition to the works of ‘Birkenau’, the tetralogy ‘Grauer Spiegel’, from 2019, will initially be exhibited in the Old National Gallery until September. A Japan tour is also scheduled in anticipation of the huge lucrative nature of the project.
Starting in 2023, the works will be presented in the newly renovated Neue Nationalgalerie, which will reopen next August. In physical terms, Richter’s works will find a permanent home in the future Museum der Moderne, which is currently being built between the Berliner Philharmoniker and the New National Gallery, planned by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. With Rebecca Horn Y Joseph Beuys, Richter is one of the few artists for whom his own areas and presentation rooms are designed.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, supported by the Berlin federal and state governments, celebrates the agreement with Richter as a success. The Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, has defined it as a «signaling device for the museum of the 20th century». Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, to which the Old National Gallery As part of the Berlin State Museums, it speaks of a “very special highlight” that marks the beginning of a close collaboration with the Gerhard Richter Art Foundation.
The precedent for this agreement, the effect of which was multiplied by the fact that even the pandemic attracted visitors from all over the planet Berlin, was Richter’s 80th anniversary retrospective, the most successful solo exhibition of a living artist in Germany with 380,000 visitors who visited the Schinkelsaal of the Old National Gallery in 2012 just to see Richter’s famous RAF cycle from 1988, now owned by New York’s MoMA, in which he made pictorial references to photos of the history of the terrorist faction of the Red Army. Richter has demonstrated, moreover, his ability to force Germany to reflect contemporary on its history, which goes beyond post-war confrontational exercises. His cycle ‘Birkenau’ surprised the artist by the controversy that it unleashed in his day and by the accusation of, when he was illustrating the Holocaust, give horror an artistic form.
The huge panels of color are crisscrossed with deep gray stripes, interrupted by islands of green and red. Richter has blurred them in his typical way. The photographic documents of the former concentration camp inmate, which gave the name to the sequence of images, are now also hung, greatly enlarged, next to the paintings. They only set the starting point, the first coat of their paint. Many more pictorial and concept operations followed that suggest to the viewer today that Richter does not so much refuse to look at atrocities, but rather refuses to interpret them.