Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
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Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)

Mao

Details
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Mao
signed, titled and dated 'Mao Studie zu 48 Köpfen Richter 1971' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
31¾ x 23 5/8in. (80.6 x 60.1cm.)
Painted in 1971
Provenance
Private Collection, Switzerland.
Exhibited
Basel, Progressives Museum, Neuer Realismus, 1972-1973, no. 20.
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Lot Essay

This work will be included as no. 323-11 in the forthcoming Gerhard Richter catalogue raisonné, edited by the Gerhard Richter Archiv, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.


Gerhard Richter's 1971 portrait Mao is one of a series of paintings made for his great collective work 48 Portraits - the enduring sequence of small grey portraits that Richter exhibited in the German Pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale and now housed in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. This sequence of forty-eight black and white portraits of famous men was drawn from over 270 source photographs that Richter gathered and cut out of an encyclopaedia. Along with a portrait of French writer Henry de Montherlant now in the MoMA New York and two others of Sigmund Freud for example, Mao was one of a small number of portraits made for this enduring collective work that Richter ultimately omitted from the final group of forty-eight.

Richter's intention with the 48 Portraits was to create an apparent pantheon of heroes within the German Pavilion that was both all-inclusive and banal. It was, he has said, a way of addressing the typical German problem of the 'absence of the father'. The mundane and puzzling collation of eminent men from almost all walks of life that offered itself to interpretation and apparent meaning in the German Pavilion can be seen as a deliberately banal counterpoint to the kind of pantheon of heroes so vaunted by the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes.

In this respect, Richter was making a point about how the passage of time reduces everything, including ideology, to the same level in much the same way that an encyclopaedia sterilises the information contained within it. In order to make this point clear Richter forced himself to select only portraits of those figures from the encyclopaedia that he felt he was not too close to. 'The issue of neutrality was my wish and main concern' he told Robert Storr in 2002, 'and that's what they were. That made them modern and absolutely contemporary.' (Gerhard Richter, 'Interview with Robert Storr', Gerhard Richter, exh. cat., MoMA, New York 2002, p. 300). This was also the reason why there are no painters included in the final selection of forty-eight. 'That would be too close to me' he explained. 'People would have tried to figure out why I included that painter but not the other one. I chose figures that I had least to do with. Of course I also had some connection to musicians and writers but there are a lot missing who I like much more than those portrayed, Sigmund Freud and Nietzsche, for example. But I didn't want to portray my favourites but the typical, the levelling; that's the reason all that was contemporary, the neutrality of the encyclopaedia, which neutralizes everything and all ideology. That's why I chose many that I didn't know and took out many that I did know. It was the opposite of truth. Adorno said: 'Every work of art is the arch-enemy of another.' They can't exist next to one another. The encyclopaedia makes that possible. We can do it in the world. That is the present situation.' (ibid p. 300)

Mao seems to have been one of the paintings that Richter took out from the selection at this stage - the work is signed, titled and dated on the back as 'Mao, Studie zu 48 Köpfen, 1971' (Mao, Study for 48 Heads, 1971). Richter's original intention of including a portrait of the famous dictator in his banal lexicon of eminent male figures may well have been to reinforce his belief in the power of time to 'neutralize' all ideology. In Mao's case, the image of the man was very much indistinguishable from the ideology, used as it was, throughout the yeas of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s as an icon of Mao's intended nullification of bourgeois culture. Here, Mao's state portrait was repeated endlessly, presiding over all aspects of life and death in China - an all-powerful icon of the kind that the young Richter had once learned to paint of Stalin during his youth in East Germany. The fact that Richter too was engaging in the production of a series of portraits also articulating a cultural nullification (albeit of a different kind) may well have made him think of Mao. But it is not the state portrait of Mao that Richter has chosen to paint in this work, nor, in fact, is it the encyclopaedic portrait of the Chinese leader that appears among the other source photographs for 48 Portraits in his Atlas. The source image that Richter has chosen for this painting is a rare photograph of a smiling Mao-Tse-Tung wearing a pith helmet and taken during the time of his 'Long March' in the 1930s. Also an encyclopaedia-like image, this portrait is infused with a sense of the nostalgia that Richter often sought to invoke in his paintings from photographs, drawing on this atmosphere to expose the limitations and essential artifice of the medium as a bearer of truth.

It was particularly this sense of nostalgia and of something lost through the passage of time, evoked so strongly in photography, that Richter wished to invoke in his 48 Portraits. The series was, he said, 'a reference to this loss. It takes account of the fact that we have lost something. It asks the question of whether or not we need to do something. It is not about the establishment of something.' (Gerhard Richter, op.cit, p. 301). Ultimately, it was probably for this reason that he rejected Mao for inclusion in the series for even though this portrait is far more anodyne than that of the state portrait or indeed the one that he had used as the basis for a blurred print in 1968. Like the portrait of Freud, the shadow cast by the figure of Mao, even smiling under a pith helmet, like some boy's own hero from a 1930s annual, was, especially in the early 1970s, too long to be included in a collation of banal images of past heroes.

Separated from these paintings Mao is a work that stands alone successfully and, perhaps, because of the legendary nature of its subject matter and yet also informal nature of its imagery, works in a similar way to that of the 48 Portraits for which it was once intended. A lone icon powerfully evoking a sense of both history and nostalgia, today it is a picture that speaks of the sanitising effects of the passage of time as well as, perhaps, of the banality of evil.

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