Lovers frolicking, an idyllic scene of modern romance and glamour... Painted in 1966, Zwei Liebespaare dates from the highpoint of Gerhard Richter's Pop and perfectly demonstrates the distance between the German movement of that name and its American counterpart. While the scene speaks of leisure and luxury, it has been reproduced in oils with a deliberate blurring dimension, as though seen through a filter that is scrambling the visual information. This makes this large-scale image problematic. Somehow, the drained palette and vaguely insubstantial grey forms bleeding into each other create a layer of abstraction, a disruption of the original pictorial information. There is none of the garish, bright and bouncy palette of the pictures of Richter's American contemporaries such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Instead, there is a subdued and subversive atmosphere, emphasised by the deliberate avoidance of 'colour' and the complete reliance on tones of grey upon grey upon grey.
This, then, is a far cry from the holiday antics that have featured in the works of previous artists. This is an expressly everyday reimagination of Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, or of Cézanne's bathers. These men and women are enjoying themselves with some abandon in a setting that recalls some of the paintings of the German Expressionists from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Yet colour, movement and drama have all deliberately been drained from the picture in order to create a large rendering of a scene that is deliberately workaday in its content. This could be the holiday snap of any modern German, and this anonymity and universality are only heightened by Richter's blurring and manipulation of the original motif. Richter is exploring the everyday, the banal. These are not celebrities, they have no veneer of recognition, of posing, of confected beauty. Instead, there is a sense that this image shows the real-and the fact that Zwei Liebespaare is clearly based on a photograph adds a strange ontological authority.
Richter had only begun his celebrated Photorealist pictures four years earlier, meaning that Zwei Liebespaare dates from one of the most exciting and influential moments in German Post-War art. When asked about the genesis of these pictures, Richter explained:
'My first Photo Picture? I was doing large pictures in gloss enamel, influenced by Gaul. One day a photograph of Brigitte Bardot fell into my hands, and I painted it into one of these pictures in shades of grey. I had had enough of bloody painting, and painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do' (Richter in 1964, quoted in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 22).
This was painting as anti-painting, and became the key to Richter's subsequent works, allowing him to develop a technique that meant that he could adhere to his notion that, 'The act of making should occur without inner involvement, like crushing stones or painting a building' (Richter, quoted in I. Michael Danoff, 'Heterogeneity: An Introduction to the Work of Gerhard Richter', pp. 9-14, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh.cat., ed. T. Neff, London, 1988, pp. 13-14n). This almost robotic act, of essentially copying out a photograph in oils on the traditional canvas, provided a solution to all the problems and the doubts that Richter had had about painting beforehand. It was precisely in the seeming mindlessness that its efficacy as a solution lay. Richter was reacting to years of teaching, of conditioning, of education in East Germany and now in West Germany. He was creating anti-art, knocking the pedestal on which exalted artists had often been placed, removing the mystique of the artistic and creative process, stripping away any sense of inspiration. Instead, the humble snapshot became his material, alongside newspaper clippings and other deliberately prosaic, everyday, democratic sources. 'I used the 'so-called' banal to show that the banal is the important and the human,' Richter has explained. 'The people whose images we see in the newspaper are not banal, they are only banal because they are not famous' (Richter, quoted in Neff, loc.cit., 1988, p. 47).
It was this elevation of the emphatically and unglamorously quotidian that marked out one of the more obvious differences between German 'Pop' and the American equivalent. There is a politicisation that cannot be escaped, a sense of context and purpose. Richter, who has steered clear of ideologies, is nonetheless painfully aware of them, and his art constantly reacts, with cynicism and detachment, to the impetus of the political systems which he saw as discredited and deeply flawed. Having lived under Nazism, under Communism, under Capitalism, he was suspicious of established hierarchies, of authority. Painting from photographs allowed him to avoid these, to submit himself to a new anti-authority, that of the discarded image of a moment, the photo. The fact that the people in Zwei Liebespaare are themselves anonymous, cavorting perhaps in some unknown or forgotten resort, adds to the sense that the banal has somehow been granted a new status. Richter is celebrating life in everyday West Germany and is celebrating everyday West Germans. But he is doing so in a knowing and deeply sophisticated manner that clearly reflects his proclamation three years earlier:
'For the first time in Germany, we are showing paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop and the like are appropriate. Pop Art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon and turns their attributes, formulations and content, through artifice, into art. It thus fundamentally changes the face of modern painting and inaugurates an aesthetic revolution. Pop Art has rendered conventional painting - with all its sterility, its isolation, its artificiality, its taboos and its rules - entirely obsolete, and has rapidly achieved international currency and recognition by creating a new view of the world.
'Pop Art is not an American invention, and we do not regard it as an import - though the concepts and terms were mostly coined in America and caught on more rapidly there than here in Germany. This art is pursuing its own organic and autonomous growth in this country; the analogy with American Pop Art stems from those well-defined psychological, cultural and economic factors that are the same here as they are in America' (Richter, 'Letter to a newsreel company', 29 April 1963, quoted in Obrist (ed.), op.cit., 1995, pp. 15-16).
Yes, the stimuli that led to German Pop and American Pop were the same, but the results were wholly different. As is clear from Zwei Liebespaare, the German version is darker, deeper, grimmer, more complex, more problematic. It is telling that Richter's sources were often newspaper images rather than magazine photographs. He largely eschewed the posed, the composed, favouring instead the spontaneous, the current, images that are from the great and general flow and flux of information in our society, that capture fragments of the everyday, as was likewise the case with snapshots. The sources that Richter used were often, as here, taken from Atlas, the colossal, ever-growing, eclectic anthological collection of newspaper cuttings, magazine pages, photographs taken by Richter and others, and other assorted ephemera which he began to collate more formally from the end of the 1960s as a work in its own right. The original newspaper clipping showing the two couples in Zwei Liebespaare comes from sheet 7, one of the earliest and one that also contains several images that were used in other Photorealist pictures from the period. There is a strange, humdrum affinity between some of the images on the sheet: Atlas is not only a source for the paintings, but is also an art project in its own right, as is reflected by its own exhibition history. Richter has collated these images, assembling them in an arcane order that reflects some overriding system, although this internal logic remains elusive to the viewer. He appears to have collected, like a magpie, facets and aspects of everyday life and condensed them into a strange anthology. This is German Pop, this is German Objectivity. Richter has assembled a vast menagerie of images that appear often to condense the modern experience.
Richter's use of the photograph as a source for his paintings created a two-way process. On the one hand, he was denigrating the esteemed and rarefied status of the traditional painter, and on the other hand he was elevating the photograph to the realms of so-called 'High Art'. This is salvage and assault all at once, and it is telling that Richter himself appears unsure and unresolved as to his own position regarding painting. Has he saved it, or was he attacking it? It is his chosen medium, his chosen vocation, and he is himself divided, it seems, as to the wisdom of pursuing this path. His pictures both question and rehabilitate the act of painting, providing a new, deceptively prosaic-seeming solution, a third way.
The fact that Richter is a painter is evidenced in the strange, swirling abstraction that fills Zwei Liebespaare. The forms appear in parts to melt into one another. Limbs, torsos and other forms become ambiguous, melting into one another. This is made all the more true by the use of different greys to render the entire scene. Richter hereby introduces a strange figurative ambiguity that highlights the fact that this is a painting, not a photograph-- it is a very specific type of picture, despite Richter's preference of the term 'Picture' for his works. Meaning has been disintegrated: 'All that interests me is the grey areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings. If I had any way of abandoning the object as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts' (Richter, 1964-65, quoted in ibid., p. 37). (This of course later came to pass.) Richter has kept representative 'realism' at a deliberate remove, a distance designed to complicate the source image and to reveal something new, to prompt us to look in a more formal and analytical manner at a newspaper image that would otherwise have been discarded after a day. It has been granted immortality, fame, has smuggled itself into the realm of beauty. And at the same time it remains anonymous, elusive, a strangely abstracted fragment of an intensely figurative reality. The black-and-white of the original source image has remained in Richter's work, but has been tactically appropriated and converted into something more deliberate, more powerful, as he himself has explained: 'I did have a special relationship with grey. Grey, to me, was absence of opinion, nothing, neither/nor. It was also a means of manifesting my own relationship with apparent reality. I didn't want to say: 'It is thus and not otherwise.' And then perhaps I didn't want anyone to confuse the pictures with reality' (Richter, ibid., p. 70). So, the medium perfectly reflects the message, perfectly reflects Richter's own anti-ideological stance, perfectly shows the cynical perspective from which he has viewed developments in Germany and in art alike.