A new exhibition of works by one of Germany’s most famous living artists, Gerhard Richter, opened in the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin on Friday.
“Gerhard Richter. 100 Works for Berlin” shows the permanent loan from the artist foundation for the first time. At the center of the exhibition is Richter’s 2014 series Birkenau, the result of the artist’s decades-long engagement with Germany’s Nazi past and the Holocaust.
The four large canvases in the Birkenau series are abstract paintings with lots of gray and black surfaces, but also some red and green strokes.
The paintings are based on four photos that were taken secretly in 1944 by Jewish prisoners of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp at the risk of their lives. Richter transferred the four photographs to the canvas with charcoal and oil, and then gradually painted over them with oil paint until their contents were no longer visible.
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Richter’s process of abstraction was based on his conviction that direct representation could not do justice to the incomprehensible horror of the Holocaust.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis and their henchmen murdered 6 million European Jews.
In the gallery opposite the Birkenau paintings there is a large mirror that not only reflects the four works, but also the visitors who become part of the installation.
“I think that makes this work so central and so intense that you, as a visitor, are really asked about your responsibility during the Nazi era and your position on the Holocaust,” said Maike Steinkamp, the exhibition’s curator.
“Richter doesn’t give us an analysis, but lets us as viewers form our own opinions,” added Steinkamp.
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Richter, 91, lives in the western metropolis of Cologne. His oeuvre spans six decades, in which he repeatedly explored the possibilities and limits of painting and the tension between abstraction and figuration.
In 2021, the Gerhard Richter Foundation donated a total of 100 works of art to the National Gallery’s collection on permanent loan, which will be transferred to the Museum of the 20th Century, which is under construction next door and will be completed in 2026.
“We are building a special exhibition space in the new building for Gerhard Richter’s permanent loan,” says Klaus Biesenbach, director of the Neue Nationalgalerie.
Biesenbach added that the current gallery “is a little smaller than the new building, but just as complex and multi-faceted”.
Until the opening of the new museum, the works will be presented in the New National Gallery. Not all 100 will be on display at the same time, they will be rotated.
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In addition to the “Birkenau” series, several other works from different creative phases by Richter are currently on view, including a large group of overpainted photographs.
Then there is “4900 Colours” from 2007, which is made up of 196 individual square panels, each subdivided into 25 color squares.
The exhibition was created in close collaboration with the artist, the museum said.
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