Seen for the first time in 30 years: Gerhard Richter’s Schädel ( Skull)

Last exhibited in January 1988 and held in the same private collection for 30 years, Schädel (Skull)  is a masterpiece that stems from the height of Richter’s photo-painting practice. The painting will be offered in London on 4 October


From left: Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) Schädel ( Skull), 1983. Oil on canvas. 31 x 25⅗ in (80.4 x 65 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 4 October at Christie’s London. © Gerhard Richter 2018 (0186); Gerhard Richter, 1984. Photograph: Benjamin Katz. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of Gerhard Richter, 2018 (04092018) 

The first of the iconic series of eight skull paintings created in 1983 — of which four are now displayed in museum collections — Schädel (Skull)  stands among Gerhard Richter’s most poignant, intimate and technically refined works.

Created in conjunction with his celebrated Kerzen (Candles), the work speaks to the artist’s own reflections on mortality in the wake of his 50th birthday — art historian Dietmar Elger describes it as ‘a masterpiece of rare intimacy’ and an ‘allegorical self-portrait’ of sorts.

Based on a photograph taken by the artist, the painting demonstrates the consummate mastery of pigment that — elsewhere in his practice — was beginning to give way to his first real achievements in free abstraction. Sumptuous tonal gradation shrouds the composition in chiaroscuro, bringing it into dialogue with the memento mori  still-life tradition cultivated by the Old Masters.

At the same time, its seamless blending of contours and shadow mimics the distortive, blurring effects of the camera: a culmination of the disarming, painterly trompe l’oeil effect first explored in Richter’s photo-paintings of the 1960s

The linear bands of light and shade, combined with the work’s soft-focus spectrum, push the painting in and out of focus, looming into three-dimensional space only to recede from our view moments later.

The dialogue between painterly abstraction and photorealist representation had been simmering across separate strands of Richter’s practice for nearly two decades. Here, through a motif laden with historic, symbolic and metaphysical charge, the two poles are brought into alignment.

Much of Richter’s early œuvre, created in the wake of the Second World War, may be understood as a protracted mourning for humanity’s loss of faith in pictorial representation. ‘The painted surface, though no longer a portal to nature, takes on another kind of truth,’ comments Francis Outred, Chairman and Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘It becomes a physical reality in its own right. In this haunting, timeless image of death, the purpose of painting is thus reborn. It is no longer simply a metaphor for the fleetingness of life, but for the evanescence of images, and the death of painting’s innocence.’

‘The reappearance of a major Richter work after 30 years is a significant moment’ — Francis Outred

Richter’s skull paintings operate in conversation with a rich art-historical ancestry. The genre of memento mori, derived from medieval Latin Christian theory, gained popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries. Translating literally as ‘remember you must die’, memento mori  was closely related to the vanitas  tradition, which considered the futility of earthly pursuits.

These distinctive still-life compositions would subsequently provide inspiration for artists such as Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, who strove to shed new light on the mechanics of perception at the dawn of the 20th century. Picasso’s skull paintings became symbolic of what he was witnessing while living in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

Richter’s engagement with Picasso’s skull paintings is evident in a group of early ink drawings dating from 1956, which have been seen as direct precursors to the 1983 photorealist suite.

As the 20th century unfolded, witnessing global conflict and waves of social and political upheaval, the iconography of the skull continued to develop. Artists such as Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger riffed on its antiquated connotations, while for Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Mapplethorpe — figures very much at large during the 1980s — the symbol became a tragic premonition of their own untimely deaths.

‘The reappearance of a major Richter work after 30 years is a significant moment,’ says Outred, ‘one that I am pleased we can coincide with Frieze Week this October. Schädel (Skull)  will be on view from 4-7 September at Christie’s in Hong Kong; from 15 to 18 September at Christie’s in New York; and from 28 September at Christie’s London, ahead of its sale in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction  on 4 October.

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