On Gerhard Richter’s Blur Effect. The Ambivalent Character of a Distanced Force

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

68 Pages, Grade: 78 % = 1


Table of Contents

A. The Painter Gerhard Richter and his Photo Paintings

B. Analysis of the Effects of Gerhard Richter’s Blur Technique
I. Personal Ingredients of the Haze: Ideological Aversion and the Conviction of the Incapability of Knowin
1.1. Encounters with Three Kinds of Ideology
1.2. Fleeing Means Freeing
II. The Rejected Viewe
2.1. The Demand for Truth in the Moving Photographs of Volker Bradke
2.2. Sadistic Heteronomy
III. The Healing Effect of the Blur Technique: Distance Evokes Respec
3.1. The Apologetic Character of the Blur Technique
3.2. Protected Compassion and Bearable Mortality

C. The Impossibility of a Conclusion in Richter: from Provocation to Protection


Image Bibliography


A. The Painter Gerhard Richter and his Photo Paintings

Gerhard Richter is one of the most successful artists of our times. His work is shown in large-scale exhibitions and retrospectives in the leading art institutions and galleries around the globe. Nevertheless, Richter is a mystery and this might even be the reason for his success. The viewer of his multimedia oeuvre is struck by a confusing and seemingly contrasting variety. This diversity is also evident in his painted work; there are classic still lives next to grey monochromes and large-scale abstracts that burst with colours next to black and white portraits. Richter keeps art critics and theorists of our times busy with new artworks that refuse to meet expectations and new statements that confuse with their attitude. There are many different viewpoints on Richter’s art, but what is widely claimed is that he refuses to commit to a defined style. However, dealing with his biography and oeuvre in depth, it becomes apparent that there is a red line that runs through his entire body of work. Richter’s red line is not of the kind we are used to in an artist’s oeuvre. It is not an artistic expression as such. Rather the artist’s mindset and his attitudes towards life are omnipresent and unite his work: Richter is convinced of the incapability of knowing, he is strictly against any form of concept or opinion and therefore also against ideologically motivated thinking. Richter’s fundamental attitude towards existence is always embedded in his works, which seek to express what he has learnt about life. His oeuvre is deeply involved with his experiences of living under two extreme antithetical ideological systems as a child and young artist and his subsequent influences in West Germany.

We can make out a certain denial of access for the viewer in Richter’s work. There is a cold detachment, the withdrawal of the piece from our eyes. Art critic Arthur Danto (2002) expresses a similar sentiment to unite Richter’s work:

There finally is a single personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from the protective cool to which I referred - a certain internal distance between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a kind of above-the-battle tranquillity that comes when one has decided that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without feeling that something is given up (p.182- 183).

Of course, there is no magical trick that the artist applies on his work and that creates this effect. It is the use of certain techniques, varying from medium to medium and from genre to genre. In this essay, the focus is put on the large group of paintings that he calls the Photo Paintings.

For Richter, it is not enough to choose newspaper or magazine clippings or family album photographs as his source images; he also manipulates his paintings in other ways to create their effect of distance. There are four aspects that seem the most important of his techniques. Firstly, he uses a colour range reminiscent of photographs; for example a black, grey, white mix with a hint of green resembling a black and white picture, or a range of colours with a cast, resembling cinematic footage (Fig.1). Also the cropping of some Photo Paintings points to their relation to photography. Images that show their subject just off centre, like Family in the Snow remind of wiggly amateur photographs. And besides these methods, also the blur technique in Photo Paintings that show their subjects in motion, like Motor Boat (Fig.2) evokes the look of a photograph, seeming like the long exposure of a moving object.

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Gerhard Richter, Cloud (1970)

Fig. 1

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Gerhard Richter, Motor Boat (1965)

Fig. 2

Richter’s mixing of characteristics which we are familiar with from photography with painting is essential in the creation of the effect of distance. A photograph is generally considered an objective picture made with technical means that are free from intention, whereas a painting is considered to be an artist’s personal expression with the brushstroke as the visible proof of the direct contact between him and his work. Richter paints the neutral photographical image with the aim to create a neutral painting, or rather even a second photograph: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph; I’m trying to make one” (Obrist, 1995, p.73). The contrast could not be more extreme when the artist chooses the most objective medium, photography, as his source for the creation of an image in the most personal, subjective medium, painting. This contradiction causes a confusing and fascinating tension that is characteristic for the Photo Paintings. This multi-layered subject is eagerly debated in contemporary art theory and critique, with writers approaching the subject from a photographic, painterly, philosophic or even scientific viewpoint. This essay, however, does not focus on the intertwining of photography and painting in these works. Here, the effect of the forth painterly technique that Richter uses to create the photographic look of his paintings is analysed.

B. Analysis of the Effects of Gerhard Richter’s Blur Technique

The strongest of Richter’s effects of withdrawing the work from the viewer’s gaze, is the creation of a softening blur as the final touch to all his Photo Paintings. Making the paintings, the artist firstly drafts his subject with a normally sized brush to create a “sharp” image (Fig.3). Having finished, he would come with a broader brush or a squeegee and blur the still wet oil paint (Fig. 4) to create the photographic effect of an out-of-focus image [1]. The blur in these paintings is not a trace of movement of the object in the photograph. This blur is an addition to the painting that does not relate to a form of haziness in the specific photographic source image, but to the general idea of vagueness, indecisiveness, anti-definition. Therefore, it mirrors the artist’s attitudes towards life in an especially expressive way. The enlargement of the usual distance between what is depicted and the viewer are the basis of this effect. At first on a quite literal level: Richter introduces another layer of depiction in these paintings by creating the depiction of a depiction of an object. This places the object of the painting further away than usual from its maker and us as viewers (Butin, 2010). Secondly, on the level of reception: an image that stays “out-of-focus” from whichever distance we look at it rejects us, and refuses to communicate. This typical caginess of Richter’s paintings, the exclusion of the recipient whom they are made for, is a striking effect in the encounter with these images. The analysis of the antithetic emotional effects of this simple but fascinating painterly technique is the theme of this essay.

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Hannes Reinhardt, In the Studio: Gerhard Richter (1969)

Fig. 3

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Hannes Reinhardt, In the Studio: Gerhard Richter (1969)

Fig. 4

This subject comprises a wide variety of deep theoretical ideas. The blur as an expression of the artist’s attitudes, as well as its effect on the viewer are topics that enclose manifold routes of consideration, especially in the field of psychology and philosophy. Many aspects of Richter’s detached, seemingly objective views are mirrored in philosophical thinking. The long-standing conviction of the “incapability of knowing” in the tradition of German thought can be seen as the basis for his attitudes. The ideas of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant are omnipresent in the artist’s statements and become visualised in his oeuvre. In Richter’s conviction of “continual uncertainty” (Obrist, 1995, p.58), like he first calls it in 1966, the basic connection between the two can be found. Kant finds himself caught in a fundamental struggle to legitimise scientific knowledge by admitting that the weighty, ontological, mind-independent reality is unknowable. However, this anti-attitude only allows the painter to get in touch with the world from an emotionally distanced standpoint. He undermines experience and decision by claiming they do not have any value in general anyway, and therefore refuses engagement. The manifold philosophical relations of Richter’s thinking are not in focus in this thesis. The purpose of this dissertation is to introduce a selection of thought-provoking impulses in different directions. The extensive theoretical analysis of these aspects and the presentation of all relevant sides of the discussion on the subject are left for a further essay.

The line of reasoning is divided into three chapters that build up upon each other. The introductory chapter will explain Richter’s historical and biographical background, how he came to the sober, detached world view that would become his style in the form of a non-style. The blur technique is a particularly expressive manifestation of Richter’s attitudes towards reality and life. For the analysis of this method, it is therefore essential to start with a focus on how these attitudes were formed and what the technique, as the expression of this attitude, exactly relates back to. Although the main points of the artist’s biography are well known, it is nonetheless important to show here specific facts in the light of the development of the blur technique. I.e. this chapter will not offer a full overview of all significant shifts and moments in Richter’s life, nor will it go into thorough detail about general political facts but introduce less known aspects of the artist’s life that had influence on the blur technique.

The analysis of Richter’s biography is structured in two connected steps. At first, the formative influence of Richter’s biography on his attitudes and the visible influence of these attitudes on his work are explained. This chapter builds the basis from which the effects of the blur technique are explored which are divided into the subsequent two chapters.

Chapter two and three deal with the emotional effects of the painterly technique. At first, the provocative side of the blur effect will be analysed. The blur technique can provoke and infuriate us with its definite refusal to give the promised information. The teasing and even sadistic character of Richter’s hazy paintings is in focus. The third chapter is dedicated to the blur technique’s creation of a space for grief and contemplation in the encounter with images of atrocity. Cruel images are hardly accessible because of their repulsive directness, but their blurred twins allow for a deeper emotional reaction. This way, a personal encounter with originally overwhelming images can take place without haste. The urge for ampler thoughts about life and death arise and reveal the universal character of the paintings.

I. Personal Ingredients of the Haze: Ideological Aversion and the Conviction of the Incapability of Knowing

To begin with, Richter’s biography will be analysed from the perspective of the artist’s experiences in a Germany ruled by National Socialism and later by the socialist party of the GDR. Apart from these extreme ideologies, the politics in the artist’s family also played an important role in the formation of his attitudes towards life. Richter’s step to free himself from ideological influences by fleeing to West Germany made it possible for him to apply his sober approach to life also onto his work. Being now able to dedicate himself to his true concerns in his work as an artist, he started to express these detached viewpoints in his paintings. The concrete steps in the realisation of this translation from thoughts into his Photo Paintings are subject of the second part of this chapter.

1.1. Encounters with Three Kinds of Ideology

Born in Dresden in 1932, Gerhard Richter was confronted with extreme ideological systems from the very beginning of his life. On the eve of his first birthday, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, marking the beginning of a dark era. Richter remembers the exceptional pressure of National Socialism in Germany during his boyhood (Elger, 2009). Numerous regimentations were imposed on German citizens. There was an omnipresence of flags on the streets; propaganda in newspapers and posters as well as radio and television; the establishment of state-run mass organisations for children, women and men; and of course the introduction of the Hitler salute. These were severe intrusions into the everyday life of the citizens of Germany. Richter’s father Horst had to join the Party as he was employed by the government working as a teacher at a Gymnasium [grammar school] and later had to serve as soldier on the Eastern front. Aged ten, Gerhard was drafted into the “Pimpfen” (Fig. 5), the program that prepared children to become members of the Hitler Youth. Thanks to his mother Hildegard, however, he managed to escape most of the horrid field exercises and tent camps, because she handed in forms of absence claiming illness for her son (Elger, 2009). As time passed during the war, an increasing amount of people was affected by racist or political persecution and outlawing.

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Town Hagen, Pimpfen

Fig. 5

Hildegard’s brother Rudolf was killed serving as a soldier, and her sister Marianne was first admitted to a mental health clinic, where she was then sterilised and starved to death by the Nazis. As it would turn out more than thirty years later, Richter’s father-in-law Heinrich Eufinger, the father of the artist’s first wife Marianne, was working in the clinic where his aunt was killed (Elger, 2009). Of both close relatives Richter lost during the war, he later painted a Photo Painting (Fig. 6, 7). The artist even chose an image that depicted himself as a baby in his aunt’s lap as source for the painting. Doing this, he claimed that his work is not personally inspired and is not an expression of experiences; the photographs simply served as motifs (Richter, 2009).

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Gerhard Richter, Uncle Rudi (1965)

Fig. 6

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Gerhard Richter, Aunt Marianne (1965)

Fig. 7

During these early years, not only political changes had an impact on the young Richter’s life. Taking a closer look at his family reveals connections to the artist’s concerned striving for success and acknowledgement in the art world and his theory of the incapability of knowing.

Gerhard was his mother’s favourite. She “projected the full sum of her unfulfilled hopes and ideals onto her son” (Elger, 2009, p.6). Hildegard was passionate about music and literature, and supported her son’s early interest in Nietzsche, Goethe and other classic writers. However, her interests and views of life stood in stark contrast to those of her husband. Horst Richter was not driven to succeed and distinguish himself as much as his wife did. He was religious and found his strength in the belief in God. Being absorbed in the atheist writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hildegard perceived her husband as intellectually inferior, and despised his piety. Her reproach for Horst even went so far as to imply to her son that Horst may not even be his father (Elger, 2009). After having spent years in an American prisoner of war camp, Horst only returned from war in 1946. While he was gone, Hildegard has “relentlessly [worked] to turn Gerhard against his father. No opportunity to ridicule Horst was allowed to pass” (Elger, 2009, p. 133). Back home, Horst found an indifferent wife and had missed the most important years in his son’s development. Sadly, the relationship between the artist and his father would never recover; Richter seems to have adopted his mother’s viewpoint of Horst. Of this relationship, Richter said in 2002:

I have even less difficulty admitting to it since it's the experience of an entire generation, the post-war generation, or even two generations that lost their fathers for all sorts of reasons, some literally, whose father’s had died in the war, then there were the others; the broken, the humiliated, the ones that returned physically or mentally damaged; and then those fathers that were actually guilty of crimes. Those are three types of fathers you don't want to have. Every child wants a father to be proud of (p. 442-443).

In 1965, he painted the portrait Horst with Dog (Fig. 8) that shows a helpless, confused old man “who almost comes across as a clown” (Richter, 2009, p. 442). Richter says in an interview in 2005: “When I painted it, I just thought it was funny […]. But when I saw it displayed in New York thirty years later, I was a little shocked because it seemed to me that the father was depicted as a predominantly tragic figure” (Spiegel, 2005, p. 130). In an article that appeared in the American magazine The Nation, Barry Schwabsky (2010) comments on this statement: “If Richter really ever saw this painting as amusing, his capacity for self-deception is truly impressive” (p. 2).


[1] The artist does not consider it right to use the photographic term “blur” when speaking of a painting: “How should e.g. paint on canvas be out of focus?” (Richter, 2009, p. 60). However, the relationship of these paintings to photography is so apparent, and confirmed by the artist, that the use of the term in this discussion is justified.

Excerpt out of 68 pages


On Gerhard Richter’s Blur Effect. The Ambivalent Character of a Distanced Force
University of Westminster  (Department of Media, Arts and Design)
Photography Dissertation
78 % = 1
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Gerhard Richter, Photo Paintings, blur, Unschärfe, Hubertus Butin, Baader-Meinhof-Komplex, RAF, Wolke, Cloud, Dead, death, painting, Volker Bradke, Robert Storr, sadism, Marquis de Sade, aversion, refusal, rejection, ideology, GDR, DDR, film, respect, compassion, psychology, heteronomy, protection, painterly technique, Daniel Buchloh, Susanne Ehrenfried, Dietmar Elger, Ulrich Obrist, Peter Osborne, Motor Boat, Motorboot, Onkel Rudi, Uncle Rudi, Tante Marianne, Horst mit Hund, Horst with Dog, Aunt Marianne, Family in the Snow, Familie im Schnee, Galerie Schmela, Tote, Man Shot Down, Hanged, Erhängte, Erschossener, Andreas Baader, Stammheim, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof
Quote paper
Sarah Doerfel (Author), 2013, On Gerhard Richter’s Blur Effect. The Ambivalent Character of a Distanced Force, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/270128


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