Freedom and Exile in Gerhard Richter's Early Photo Paintings

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In March 1961, Gerhard Richter fled socialist East Germany for a freer life in the capitalist West. This article explores Richter's response to this transition in his early photo paintings, the works with which he made his name in his new homeland. While most discussions of Richter's Western output commence with the photo paintings, which he began producing in late 1962, these were in fact preceded by more than a hundred abstract and expressionist images that he later destroyed. In stark contrast to his later paintings, in which evidence of Richter's personal attitudes toward his subject-matter is in short supply, his first Western works were highly self-expressive and called attention to his feelings of loneliness and dislocation as he endeavoured to adjust to his new surroundings. By re-examining the photo paintings against the backdrop of these anxious images, I bring to light a central yet neglected aspect of the photo paintings' significance. While outwardly impersonal, both their subject-matter and the blurring of their imagery derived from Richter's efforts to resolve his feelings of isolation and insecurity in the West. This experience is of social as well as biographical importance, I suggest, since it connects Richter's art to a broader historical dynamic, which would reshape the landscape of modern art in the decades to come, namely a new mode of individuation that was at that time beginning to emerge in the liberal democratic societies of the West. While individuation had been prized throughout the modern era as a means of loosening the shackles of collective constraint, in the postwar period it began to bring with it the possibility of floating free from collectivity at large. This historically novel experience was troubling for individuals like Richter who, having striven escape the strictures of East German collectivity, now found himself bereft in the individualistic West of the comforts that only shared experience can offer.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)305-325
Number of pages20
JournalOxford Art Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014
Externally publishedYes

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