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
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
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
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
‘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
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.