Gerhard Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany. During his early years, he witnessed the intense bombing of Munich in 1945, as more than a thousand heavy bombers from both the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force targeted the city in southern Germany. 

After some time, Richter recalled roaming around and witnessing the ruins, which assembled an idea for his artwork and proved to be an important event in his life. As a result, he confronted this subject in a series of aeroplane paintings from 1963 titled Bombers. This painting demonstrates planes of the U.S. and the British Air Forces burning scores of Dresden, and turning everything into rubble. 

A photo of Gerhard Richter. Image courtesy of The Art Newspaper.

Richter’s series of Townscapes paintings also involve the subject of aerial bombardment, as specific features of the artistic execution can be discerned. Although based on photographs of cities following their reconstruction after the war, these paintings were painted in a near-abstract manner. As a result, as Richter remarked later, "When I look back to the Townscapes now, they do seem to me to recall certain images of the destruction of Dresden during the war."

Richter is considered among the most important living contemporary artists, from meticulously-rendered photo paintings, to bold abstract works, using a large squeegee instead of a paintbrush. He shifts from photographic realism with a blurred effect to pure abstraction. Throughout his prolific career, he has demonstrated tremendous artistic range, shifting between figurative and abstract painting.

Stadtbild F from the series Townscapes. Image courtesy of Gerhard Richter.

As Richter’s generation struggled to deal with the past, the question, “Why paint?” became an especially provocative one. Having grown up under an authoritarian regime, the reason to paint was existential. For Richter, art was not a luxury, it was a necessity, a profound desire for justice and freedom of expression, which relates to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

One of the most important parts of Richter’s process is the squeegee because it allows him to create mechanical-looking effects in the final image. It tells how much his way of working resembles the detached act of screen printing, in which ink is pushed through a screen in even layers, and by removing the individual, stylistic traces of his hand, as shown in his abstract portraits. 

One of Richter’s grey portraits, Farbschlieren. Image courtesy of Gerhard Richter.

As for Richter’s grey paintings, there’s a void of figuration and recognizable imagery, as in his portrait, Farbschlieren. It reveals Richter's employing of thick brushstrokes and monochromatic colour, then sweeping across the canvas in a fluid, entirely fused motion. This powerful gesture shows a consideration of how abstract forms may serve as a painter's subject just as effectively, for their visual or optical interest, as any photographic or realistic scene derived from nature, or the world.

A photograph and a painting are both real, yet one is more objective; a photograph and the other is more abstract; the painting. Richter’s multi-disciplined oeuvre over his professional career contained roughly equal numbers of realistic and abstract works, creating a series of painted monochromatic and polychromatic artworks, which offered over-painted reflections of reality on their surfaces.

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