There are very few reasons to get off the Nordrhein-Westfalen train at Leverkusen if you are on your way anywhere between Cologne and Hamm. But the Museum Morsbroich is one very good one. Continuing on the Gerhard Richter trail of 2008 exhibitions (see my review of the Abstrakte Bilder exhibition) the Museum housed in the old castle at Morsbroich is showing an extraordinary selection of 500 of Richter’s over-painted photographs executed between 1986 and 2008. While Richter is also under the spotlight in London at the moment, it is these small German exhibition spaces that have access to the treasures of his collection.
Despite my admiration for Richter as a painter, until I saw this exhibition I was not so excited about the over-painted photographs. But the comprehensive nature of the exhibit, the continuities across the works, and the developments we see in his approach to this very specialized medium makes for a mesmerizing couple of hours at the museum.
Many of Richter’s life long concerns recur here in the over-painted photographs, but often in very different guises from those we meet in other works. To name but one, perhaps the most obvious is that of his preoccupation with the relationship between painting and photography. In these images —all of which are dated, but not titled — the two media are placed in constant conversation. At times they belong to two different worlds, at times they are integrated and in complete unison with each other. When paint appears to be falling out of the sky spread across a desolate landscape, the two are complementary, apparently of the same world. Similarly, in the delicate spray of pale pink or blue paint on a photographed winter landscape, the paint becomes the softly falling snow in the foreground. But in those images in which people are obscured by a swathe of paint, the over-painting forms a curtain behind which we are prohibited from seeing the reality we always assume the photograph to represent. There are also instances in which a transparent coat of paint slides across the surface of the image, speaking not only that paint and photographic surfaces do not take, but that the events in the photograph are all but a fantasy, an illusion, or if a reality, it is a reality we cannot reach. In such cases the photograph is hidden behind a veil of painted representation.
There is also a thread in these images that ties them very tightly to Richter’s other works. Again, to give one example, the encyclopedic Atlas is everywhere present in the proliferation of holiday snaps, city scapes, family, landscapes and so on, all with the dimensions of the Polaroid photograph. These connections to the ongoing project of Atlas remind us that the over-painted photographs are always the visions of the way that Gerhard Richter sees the world. And we are reminded once again that, contrary to our expectations, the photograph is not a document of an objective reality.
As we move through the numerous rooms of the exhibition, we do not necessarily see clear developments in the approach and handling of the paint on photograph. However, by the time we reach those made in the late 1990s and 2000s we find patterns in paint on the photograph-as-support that are found in the abstract paintings on canvas. The large series with Firenze in their titles are outstanding examples of this continuity. Familiar explorations of paint as color, its behavior on its given support, and the creation of worlds that express what cannot be expressed in ways other than paint. And again, like the mature abstract paintings, we are often tempted to find figuration in what are otherwise no more than brushstrokes on the surface, this time, of a photograph. In images such as 17. Febr. ’92 (1992) for example, we surely see the wings of a mighty bird.
Whatever it is we find in these delicate, at times gloomy, and at others, gay, photographs, there is plenty to keep us looking at Gerhard Richter’s Übermalte Fotografien.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Gerhard Richter, 17. Feb. 92, 1992, black and white paint on color photograph, 9.8 x 15 cm, courtesy Gerhard Richter, Galerie Bernd Lutze, Friedrichshafen. Gerhard Richter, 1. Juli 94, 1994, oil on color photograph, 9.8 x 14.9 cm, courtesy Gerhard Richter, Privatbesitz Schweiz. Gerhard Richter, 9.5.08, 2008, paint on color photograph, 15 x 9.9 cm, courtesy Gerhard Richter, private collection.)