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Gerhard Richter's gift to Berlin now on show

Stefan Dege
April 1, 2023

Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie museum presents 100 works by Gerhard Richter, on long-term loan from his art foundation. At the center of the show is the iconic "Birkenau" cycle.

A portrait of German painter Gerhard Richter with one of his paintings behind him.
German artist Gerhard RichterImage: Rolf Zoellner/epd/imago images

The "Gerhard Richter: 100 works for Berlin" exhibition promises to be a magnet for visitors. Gerhard Richter is one of the most highly regarded contemporary artists in the world, which makes the collection of paintings the artist gave to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 2021 on permanent loan, shortly before his 90th birthday, very valuable.

In determining the distribution of his estate, the artist left his birthplace, Dresden, and his hometown, Cologne, empty-handed. Richter chose Berlin, which celebrated the decision as a "sensation."

Gerhard Richter's gift to Berlin

The approximately 100 works are now on display at the Neue Nationalgalerie, and they are earmarked to find a home in the future Museum of the 20th Century.

The current exhibition was developed in close collaboration with the artist.

Focus on 'Birkenau' cycle

Nearly 90 works from several creative phases since the 1980s are on display beside Richter's "Birkenau" Holocaust cycle, including photographic-like paintings made with his characteristic wiping technique, such as "Squatters' House" (1989), "4,900 Colors" (2007) and "Strip" (2013/2016).

The show also features overpainted photographs, in which Richter explored the field of tension between photography and painting.

Ausstellung 'Gerhard Richter Birkenau' | Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden
The artist and his Birkenau canvases in 2016Image: ULI DECK/dpa/picture alliance

Richter's four-part "Birkenau" (2014) cycle — large abstract color canvases, crisscrossed with deep gray streaks and complemented by triplets of green and red — take center stage at the Berlin show, however. The works were created from photos secretly taken by a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in August 1944.

'Picasso of the 21st century'

Art critics like to refer to Gerhard Richter, who lives in Cologne, as the "Picasso of the 21st century." In fact, the Dresden-born artist is one of the most successful contemporary artists. His works hang in the world's most important museums, where they fetch record sums on the art market. The art world has showered him with prizes.

Richter shares little more than fame with Picasso, the pioneer of modern art in the 20th century. Even though the German artist also loves women and married three times, unlike the illustrious Spanish artist, Richter shies away from the limelight. He rarely gives interviews and avoids the stomping grounds of the glamorous art world.

Gerhard Richter artwork 4,900 Colors, three panels made up of little colored squares.
Gerhard Richter's artwork '4,900 Colors'Image: Sylvio Dittrich/imago images

What he does have in common with Picasso is that he has moved from one style to the next while other artists were just discovering them.

This can be observed through his early Pop Art paintings and first attempts at abstract expressionism in the early 1960s, which he declared to be "Capitalist Realism." It was Richter's ironic and consumer-critical response to Socialist Realism, the official art doctrine in East Germany at the time

Richter's trademark: Stylistic disruption

He has painted landscapes in the Romantic tradition, cloud paintings and seascapes, still lifes and portraits. Richter has brought representational painting into the age of photography.

He has reinvented himself over and over again, at times with photorealistic depictions of nature or blurred paintings, or with glass and mirror objects, installations and overpainted photos, as well as large-scale paintings with bright colors.

Constant stylistic disruption are the hallmark of his art. Few artists have explored the possibilities of painting like 91-year-old Gerhard Richter.

The exhibition "100 Works in Berlin" will be on display at the Neue Nationalgalerie from April 1, 2023 to 2026.

This article was originally written in German.

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