No coincidence: Gerhard Richter in Dresden

Art of Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter Köln (06112017), Foto: David Pinzer

One of the world’s most influential contemporary artists has an abiding connection with Dresden – the Gerhard Richter Archive. As the first port of call for admirers of Richter’s works, it is about to publish a six-volume catalogue raisonné.

Theresa Manzke’s art teacher must have been an inspirational influence, because it was her admiration for Gerhard Richter that first brought the now 22-year-old from Marktredwitz in Bavaria to Dresden. When the time came to decide on a topic for her in-depth study at Abitur level, Theresa plumped for Gerhard Richter. In combination with Jan Vermeer van Delft, another major figure in the history of art.

The Albertinum in Dresden
The Albertinum houses the Galery “Neue Meister” and the sculpture collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden © Frank Exß

Each of these two visual artists has produced his own portrait in profile of a female lost in contemplation of the written word. Vermeer painted Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window sometime between 1657 and 1659, and Richter his Lesende (Reading) in 1994. The compositional similarity strongly suggests that the later artist must have known the work of the former.

Theresa soon identified Dresden as the most likely place for this acquaintance to have come about, as the Vermeer portrait hangs among the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings in the Old Masters Gallery, while Richter has two permanent exhibition rooms in the New Masters Gallery in the Albertinum. So it was clearly not a coincidence. Richter was born in Dresden in 1932 and studied mural painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Dresden on Brühl’s Terrace in the 1950s. He saw for himself how the concept of art favoured and promoted by the GDR regime conformed to the narrow formula of Socialist Realism. Richter perfectly mastered the politically approved forms – there is a mural by him in the foyer of the German Hygiene Museum, albeit now covered by a coat of plain white paint. However, he has no wish for it to see the light of day, as he does not accept it as a work of art, given the constraints under which it was created. As an artist working in the GDR, he found the conditions oppressive. In 1961, after attending documenta II in Kassel, he finally decided to leave the cultural dead-end that was the GDR and to further his career in West Germany where there would be no such constraints or compromises.

Atrium of the Albertinum
Atrium of the Albertinum© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / HC Krass

Gerhard Richter was eventually persuaded to return to Dresden by Martin Roth, the former General Director of the Dresden State Art Collections (SKD) who died in August 2017. In 2002, after the Elbe breached its banks and flooded the store rooms in the basement of the Albertinum, Roth launched an appeal to fund new flood-proof storage facilities in the building. Richter was the first to donate a painting: Der Fels (The Rock) fetched 2.6 million euros. Two years later, Roth offered the artist two rooms in the Galerie Neue Meister – a considerable honour considering the restrictions on space at the Albertinum. Ever since, Richter’s works have rounded off the grand tour which begins with the Casper David Friedrich room.

© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

“After the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and the Neues Museum Nürnberg, we have here the third largest permanent exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s works,” says Kerstin Küster of the Gerhard Richter Archive, an institution which also goes back to Martin Roth’s initiative. “He wanted to reconnect Richter with Dresden. The main argument he presented was that the SKD could provide custodianship for Richter’s artistic archive by means of catalogues, posters, invitation cards, newspaper supplements, correspondence, CDs, DVDs, videos. We even have Christmas calendars, maths books and children’s books with Richter motifs.” Some rather unusual Richter memorabilia will be going on display during the Open Day on 12th December 2017. On a more day-to-day basis, the archive provides researchers with access to rare catalogues from the 1970s.

The Gerhard Richter archive © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

As director of the archive, Gerhard Richter appointed Dietmar Elger, who had worked as secretary in his studio for many years. Nobody is as familiar with Richter’s modus operandi as Elger, and nobody else can immediately pinpoint the whereabouts of all his pictures. His value as a fount of all knowledge is not to be underestimated, because not all private collectors wish their ownership to be in the public domain. One of the main tasks of the archive is to act as an intermediary for exhibitions, bringing together lenders and curators, or suggesting alternatives when a work is not available. Kerstin Küster explains: “For example, it would have been a perfect match for Marlene Dumas’s current Skulls exhibition at the Albertinum if we could have displayed a painting from Richter’s own Schädel (Skulls) series.” The collaboration between the archive and the New Masters Gallery is close and facilitated by the shared premises. In this case, however, Richter’s Schädel are currently on display as part of The Life of Images exhibition in Brisbane, so the archive sourced the artist’s 48 Porträts for the Albertinum – an equally inspired companion series to Dumas’s watercolour portraits.

When Theresa Manzke visited the Richter archive as part of the research for her special study paper, she became captivated by Dresden. Now she is finishing her studies at the Dresden University of Technology. But even though her stay here may soon be coming to an end, she will always associate the name of Gerhard Richter with Dresden.

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