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Post Lot Text
The present lot will be included in volume 4 of the forthcoming official Catalogue Raisonné of Gerhard Richter, edited by the Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden, as no. 848-3, to be published in 2016.
The ethereal scene captured in Gerhard Richter’s Demo is a meticulously rendered example of the complex dialogue that takes place within many of the artist’s best works. For behind the veil of sumptuous color, this painting presents a narrative that discusses not only the nature of contemporary painting, but also issues of freedom and democracy which continue to challenge many societies around the world. A mesmerizing example of the artist’s photo-painting practice, Demo sits alongside such exceptional works as Onkel Rudi, 1965 (Lidice Collection, Czech Republic) and his 1988 series of paintings featuring members of a suspected Baader Meinhoff gang (Museum of Modern Art, New York) in directly addressing issues confronting modern German society. Here, the fluttering red flags and banners show the aftermath of a May Day demonstration by a group of asylum seekers, a physical reminder of the complex politics of Germany’s new role as a model of European democracy. In addition to the political nature of its subject matter, in this painting Richter also confronts the politics of painting, looking at what it means to be a painter within the context of contemporary art and championing its continued relevance within the artistic canon.
This painting is based on a 1993 photograph taken by Richter of a group of Turkish Kurd asylum seekers marching through the streets of Cologne. Taken on May 1st, the traditional day for political demonstrations and displays of workers’ solidarity throughout much of Europe, Richter’s original photograph shows the group with their banners bearing words such as dvrimci (revolutionary), sol (left) and süchi (crime). In Demo however, the slogans appear to have evaporated, leaving only the searing red fabric visible to straggle of assembled onlookers. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this scene now represents the new, post-unification Germany complete with its newly arrived citizens and evidence of reconstruction that can be seen in the roadwork signage, large orange crane tower and builders’ accommodation along the protestors’ route.
Richter’s practice of transcribing photos began in the early 1960s. Initially he used preexisting images in a bid to remove concerns over deciding upon suitable subject matter. “My appropriation of photographs,” he explained, “my policy of copying them without alteration and without translating them into a modern form… represented a principled avoidance of the subject…there is always the intention, the hope, of getting a subject handed to me on a plate, as it were: one not invented by me, and for that reason more universal, better, less perishable, more generally valid” (G. Richter, “Notes 1986, 12 October 1986, in answer to his own queries, “What shall I paint? How shall I paint?” in Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007, New York, 2009, p. 162).
However, unlike his earlier photo-paintings, in Demo Richter skews the original source image, manipulating the composition away from the original meaning to express more universal truths. Using the specific event to speak to the commonality of human suffering or oppression, Richter’s wipes away the details leaving only a trace of the reference points. In so doing, he binds the community of viewers together in a single emotional or humanistic act. This work is both about painting per se and about divesting an image of its specificity in order to engage a universal audience. Part of the mystery of this work has to do with the non-specific or casual quality of their sources. By scaling the source image up and subjecting it to various unifying treatments such as smearing or blurring, it resonates with universal resonance.
Richter regarded the very act of painting as a political act and from the beginning of his career he sought to answer questions about the fundamental nature of his chosen medium. What does painting mean in the modern age? What can be done to ensure that it remains relevant? Can it still be infused with meaning? Some of his early subjects, such as Onkel Rudi—the painting of the artist’s own uncle is based on a photograph taken only a short while before Hitler and the German army unleashed the maelstrom of World War II—were overtly political. Others such as Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan), are more subtle and what appears to be an ordinary street scene in front of Milan’s Cathedral, on closer examination is populated with army tanks and official vehicles of the Fascist regime. Championing the act of painting, then selecting seemingly ordinary scenes, is for Richter part of that political act, or, often its opposite, a self-consciously distancing act.
The artist, whose own biography involves political repression and forced asylum, shares in the subject matter of Demo, having at an early age been exposed to the harsh realities of World War II as a child in Dresden. Subject to the pressures of the National Socialists, both to paint in the Social Realist style and to suppress his aesthetic ambitions, Richter finally emigrated from Dresden by way of the Soviet Union to the West, settling in Düsseldorf just in advance of the construction of the Berlin Wall and the closure of the East. It was with the photo paintings that Richter initiated what would become a lifetime involvement with the transcription into paint of the photo image. “I wanted to make a new start after my work in East Germany, but also after the many pictures I had painted in the West, among which were a number of photo-paintings. I wanted to draw a line, indicating that these paintings were in the past…” (G. Richter, in Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, London, 2009, p. 259).
A mark of Demo’s importance within the artist’s oeuvre can be seen in its selection by Richter for inclusion in two of his seminal retrospectives, and illustrated in color in both their catalogues. The first, the dazzling “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting” at the Museum of Modern Art in 2002, which later traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The second was the artist’s magisterial “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” an exhibition that coincided with Richter’s eightieth birthday and originated at the Tate Modern in London before traveling subsequently to the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, and to the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris in 2012.
Richter’s work from this period reflects his restored faith in painting as a relevant medium for artistic expression; a confidence which enabled him to produce some of the most beautiful works of his career. His political paintings also take on a special significance, which despite their rarity seems to mean more to him in his role as a chronicler of the culture of our times. They stand at one end of a continuum that also includes his paintings of morality (skulls, candles etc.) and adoring portraits of his family. In this context, Demo is a significant work in that it combines political subject matter with aesthetic beauty. On the surface, one would be hard to identify the political nature of the subject, incorporated as it is in Richter’s dynamic surface. It is this gap between the political and the esthetic that defines this work and distinguishes it a singular piece within his oeuvre.