A shimmering illusion of matrimonial bliss, Gerhard Richter’s Brautpaar (blau) (Bride and Groom (blue)) (1966) is a rare work in colour from the seminal series of photo-paintings that launched his career. Unseen in public during its lifetime, it stems from one of the most important years of the artist's early practice, standing alongside major works such as Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe) (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) and Zwei Liebespaare (Daros Collection, Zurich). Based on a photograph published in the magazine Quick, it painstakingly mimics the qualities of the original snapshot, translating its palette to a soft blue tone unique in this body of work. Working in the aftermath of the Second World War, Richter was fascinated by the truth claims of photography, and sought to place painting in dialogue with its aesthetic condition. In doing so, he launched a pioneering investigation into the relationship between reality and its reproduction: a quest that would ultimately lead him into abstraction. Much like Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings, produced during the same period, the present work demonstrates Richter’s particular interest in everyday images – the ubiquitous flood of snapshots that populated family albums and newspaper articles. Many were chosen for their subversive commentary on bourgeois life: indeed, the present work’s source – despite its seemingly joyful narrative – was taken from an article that interrogated the institution of marriage. Richter amassed multiple photographs of this nature in his personal compendium Atlas, and the resulting canvases stand among his most poignant. Images from the same album leaf as the present work’s source gave rise to significant paintings now held in the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden and the Museum Brandhorst, Munich.
The year 1966 was a pivotal moment in Richter’s early career, marked by a stream of exceptional photo-paintings including Reisebüro (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Jagdgesellschaft (The Art Institute of Chicago), Helga Matura (Art Gallery of Ontario) and Helga Matura mit Verlobtem (Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf). It was also a time of growing critical and commercial success, thanks in part to the landmark exhibition staged with his friend and comrade Sigmar Polke that March at Galerie h in Hannover. There, the two artists established themselves as tongue-in-cheek critics of contemporary post-war society, proclaiming their allegiance to so-called ‘Capitalist Realism’. Richter’s fascination with found imagery, in particular, seemed to align him conceptually with the concerns of Pop Art. He, on the other hand, placed his roots in the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose touring retrospective he had attended the previous year. Since their inception in 1962, Richter’s photo-paintings had adopted an almost exclusively grey spectrum, owing to the artist’s use of black-and-white source images. In 1966, however, his interest in ‘readymade’ objects would ultimately lead him into colour: that year saw the beginning of his legendary Colour Charts, based on printed chromatic grids that he found in his local paint store. The present work, with its singular blue palette, may be seen to precipitate the artist’s move away from monochrome; so too did Ema, based for the first time on a colour photograph. The all-over saturation of Brautpaar (blau), meanwhile, establishes a further point of correspondence with Warhol’s silkscreens, recalling the benign primary hues with which he veiled his enigmatic subjects.
Richter’s early photo-paintings ultimately established the conceptual parameters of his later practice. The works – like many of their subjects – sat in a liminal, ambiguous zone, simultaneously celebrating and critiquing the conditions of both photography and painting. The results were new objects which combined the apparatus of the latter with the visual appearance of the former. ‘I am not trying to imitate a photograph; I’m trying to make one’, Richter explained. ‘I’m not producing paintings that remind you of a photograph, I am practicing photography by other means’ (G. Richter, ‘Interview with Rolf Schön’, in 36 Biennale Venice 1972, exh. cat, Folkwang Museum, Essen, 1972, p. 23). Richter initially used a drawn pencil grid to transfer the source image to canvas, subsequently investing in an episcope. Through this process, the artist identified a way of operating that would eventually lead him to dissolve the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. ‘When I draw – a person, an object – I have to make myself aware of proportion, accuracy, abstraction or distortion and so forth’, he explains. ‘When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated … The photograph has an abstraction of its own, which is not easy to see through’ (G. Richter, ‘Notes, 1964-1965’, in D. Elger and H-U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter – Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 29). Such words seem to prefigure his later use of the squeegee, which similarly required the artist to submit to forces beyond his control. The present work eloquently captures the dawn of this approach: bride and groom blur into an indeterminate haze in the thrilling collision of painting, photography, reality and illusion.