Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern

Filed in Reviews by on October 8, 2011

Gerhard Richter: Panorama

Tate Modern

6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012


The problem with Tate Modern – and indeed Tate in all its manifestations – is that it is not really an art gallery but a museum. (I sometimes think they should go the whole hog and rebrand it MoMA.) Even though all significant streams of modern art are represented here, it seems to me that as soon as an artwork enters through Tate’s doors, it ceases to be a living piece of art and becomes a historical artefact. We do not go to Tate Modern to be stimulated and entertained, but to be educated and morally and intellectually cleansed. No risks are taken, no fortunes or reputations are put in danger of being won or lost. Tate Modern is for the kind of people who want to know the football results but without having to take the trouble to watch any of the games. The experience offered is more like going to confession on a Sunday morning than a party on a Saturday night (or even a private view on a Thursday). And while I am now too old to be a raver (in truth I was probably born too old), even I have a craving for excitement now and again and the art world is one of the places where I look for it. But I search in vain in Tate Modern; instead, there is the Pantheon of the Artistic Gods, and if we are not forced to worship here, we are certainly encouraged, if not absolutely required, to take off our shoes and revere.

The metaphorical reek of embalming fluid that pervades Tate Modern poses no problems for a dead artist, but it is not necessarily conducive to the presentation of the work of a living one, even if he or she is towards the end of a career. So it is with this exhibition of work by Gerhard Richter. It is presented in a perfectly chronological manner, any twists and turns in the sequence being provided by the artist himself. The curatorial script thereby more or less writes itself, but the style and effect is rather dry and didactic and, for me, not especially engaging. It is rather like a Natural History Museum exhibit of the life cycle of a dragonfly but without the thrill and excitement.

So why Richter? Apparently, what is especially interesting about Richter is that he is a painter and everyone knows that painting is dead, and has been for years (apart from all those painters who, rather like the Japanese soldiers stranded alone on Pacific islands after the war, don’t seem to have heard the news). In fact, it seems that paintings are now so scarce that panic buying has set in; one of Richter’s, depicting – wait for it – a candle, sold for £10.5 million on 14 October 2011, three days before I wrote this review. So I guess the exhibition’s main theme (if it has one but if not, let’s invent one anyway) is that it’s time to find out how and why the species died out.

Well, after visiting this exhibition, I think I know the answer; it must have bored itself to death. Richter is a master of not saying much at all in his art (and the pricey and utterly uninspired Candle painting is an example of this); indeed he says so little that we have to invent something that it could have been saying (but probably wasn’t) in order to fill the vacuum. And what little he does say is not interesting. His art is grimly Teutonic and humourless. The only real consistency in his work is stylistic inconsistency. Other artists whose careers span similar lengths of time have produced bodies of work which show the development of a world view, an aesthetic philosophy, a personality, a humanity which intrigues and inspires. For me, Richter does none of those things.

While I am aware that the majority of the people who have seen this exhibition seemed to like and enjoy it, personally I found very little to interest me. The trademark “blur” in many of his paintings based on photographic material irritates me. It has been said that Richter wants us to shed our “trust” in the image as a representation of reality – well I was never going to trust Richter’s images because I simply didn’t like them anyway. And for me, hyper-realism never adds anything to the subject of a painting – it actually removes layers of meaning in a way which freezes out the viewer and distances the artist from him or her. The colour chart paintings strike me as being fatuous and uninspired. The abstracts, especially those executed entirely in shades of grey, feel and look like busy-work, unoriginal and lacking visual appeal.

So, as you have probably gathered, the next time one of Richter’s paintings comes up for sale, I will be keeping my £10.5 million in my pocket. Unless some Jack Vettriano paintings come up in the same sale. For £10.5 million, I could have some bonfire.

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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