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Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, a city synonymous with the death and mass destruction of the Second World War. He was thirteen when the RAF reduced his birth town to rubble at a cost of 25,000 civilian lives – this and the experience of growing up in Communist East Germany were to have a profound influence on his artistic production.

After studying at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts he moved over from East to West Germany in 1961, just two months before the construction of The Wall, and settled in Düsseldorf.

In his early work his subject matter deals with Germany’s Nazi past and in doing so confronted a period of history that most Germans were trying to forget. He painted photo-realistic images of planes dropping bombs and relatives who had been active in the war. He painted readymade black-and-white photographs in reaction to the waves of American-inspired Abstract Expressionism sweeping across Europe. Richter gave the paintings a blurred appearance by dragging a dry brush across their surface. The stark difference between white and black, solids and voids, material and immaterial, creates a harrowing and spectral effect.

His Aunt Marianne, 1965, is a most moving image. Painted after an old family photo, it depicts the infant artist in the arms of his fifteen year-old mentally disabled aunt who was killed as part of the Nazi eugenics programme. Alongside this painting is Herr Heyde, 1965, a Nazi doctor involved in the programme and his Uncle Rudi dressed in military uniform, showing Richter’s recognition of the fact that his family history was interwoven with the most regrettable period of his country’s history.

The second room shows the impact of Richter’s encounter with the works of one of the grandfathers of modern art, Marcel Duchamp, in a 1965 exhibition. In a challenge to Duchamp’s opinions on the limitations of painting and his work Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912, Richter created Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966, after a photograph of his wife walking down a set of stairs. His use of light and blurring technique visually brings the figure forward referencing her physical movement forward whilst the fleeting nature of the subject and the original photographic medium provide a reminder of the fleeting nature human existence.

I enjoyed Richter’s reference to Duchamp’s most iconic work, his readymade urinal, Fountain, 1917, with his painting Toilet Paper Roll, 1965. The clue’s in the title with this one.

Despite challenging Duchamp’s conceptions of painting, it’s easy to see how the Dadaists critique of consumerism echoed Richter’s own beliefs, especially in relation to the cultural gulf he witnessed when moving from the Communist East. He defined his early work as ‘Capitalist Realism’, once hanging a selection of his works in a department store.

The exhibition does well to show his feelings of artistic inferiority when confronted with the Old Masters. On display are his homages to Titian, Vermeer and his fellow Saxon, Caspar David Friedrich. When he saw Titian’s Annunciation in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice whilst exhibiting at the 1974 Biennale, he created a version of the original based on a postcard, but showed it dissolving towards a state of abstraction. He commented that the ‘beautiful culture’ of the old master was irretrievable and to paint like him would be futile.

Using the same dissolution effect he created a two part series based on a photograph of tourist killed by lions in a Spanish zoo. Here, the abstraction is so much greater that you have to look for some time before the horrific nature of the image is revealed.

The play between the represented and the representation is key to understanding Richter’s work; as the artist once wrote: “You do not see less by looking at a field out of focus through a magnifying glass”.

Many of his abstract squeegee paintings of the 1980s are also on display but I don’t feel as excited in their presence as I do with his photo abstractions. The monochrome Red Army Faction series based on newspaper images of the dead leaders of the radical Baader-Meinhof Group is Richter at his best – presenting trauma through painting and confronting a subject that most people wish to forget.

by Edward Lines

Gerhard Richter: Panorama is on at Tate Modern until 8th January 2012