Revealing and Concealing: Richter’s "Table" at the Sackler

by Victoria Aschheim

"…art, whether it is painting, poetry, or for that matter music, springs from the memory of the artist and speaks to the memory of the consumer of that art, [it] is a fundamental truth…criticism is primarily a phenomenon of recognition; and it is that sense of recognition that I have sought to elucidate and develop throughout."– J.A. Hiddleston in Baudelaire and the Art of MemoryEveryday, Harvard offers precious artistic moments, such as the opportunity awaiting you at the Sackler Museum in the first-floor gallery of the permanent exhibition, Re-View. Over the long period of research and contemplation of my senior thesis topic, I longed to see certain original, early photo-paintings by German artist Gerhard Richter in private collections or otherwise inaccessible. Thanks to Harvard's Benjamin H.D. Buchloh having alerted me to Richter’s Table (1962) at the Sackler Museum, I was able to stand before the work of art that Richter had designated as number one in his Catalogue Raisonné as he began his career in art anew in West Germany.With Table, Richter took one of his very first steps in a search for a new way to paint, abandoning the Socialist Realism in which he was so thoroughly trained. Table displays a moving insight into the new world that presented itself to Richter when he defected from East Germany to West Germany in 1961, and the internal conflicts and challenges Richter faced within a society that had perpetrated the barbarism of the Holocaust. In West Germany, Richter had the freedom to express his feelings through his art.

Table is at once representational and abstract, revealing and concealing, with a swirl of gray paint substantially obscuring the image of the table beneath. One can discern through Table the beginning ofRichter’s artistic struggle with Germany's World War II history. Part of the horrific reality of this recent history was revealed to him through photographs of Holocaust atrocities when he was an art student in Dresden. Richter’s personal interaction through his art with Germany’s wartime role and with the idea of uncovering historical memory in the nation of his birth, would be soon integrally combined with his new life in West Germany.In 1957, while still in East Germany, Richter began to reveal a hint of remorse connected to the German perpetration of Holocaust genocide by creating a series of illustrations for a proposed volume of the Diary of Anne Frank.

Table shows Richter drawn to the color gray, signals the very beginning of the idea of photography as a source for his art work, and indicates Richter’s new personal experience of the consumer culture in which West Germany was steeped, as a way of repressing memory of its culpability in World War II and the Holocaust. As Benjamin H.D. Buchloh writes in "Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive," Germans were living in a state of repression and denial, the "specifically German modality as the condition of repression of historical memory, a sort of psychic anesthesia," literally drowning memory in the absorbing task of rebuilding the burgeoning West Germany economy.

The placard on the Sackler gallery's wall tells that Richter’s painting is of an everyday object, an extendable table by the architect Ignazio Gardella, a picture of which had been published "in the important design magazine Domus."Having just arrived from East Germany, "where advertising of any kind was prohibited, where fashion photography (let alone soft – or hard – pornography) were outlawed, and where images fuelling the desire for tourist travel and consumption would have been banned from the photographic public sphere of the Communist state, Richter could for the first time, endlessly peruse these images in abundance," writes Buchloh.

Almost as Charles Baudelaire was a flâneur – the intellectual manifestation of the flâneur – acutelyobserving and interpreting life within Parisian modernity, including all its commodity displays, Richter in his Atlas, a personalcollection of photographs begun in 1962, records and curates his observations of the world around him, including in the early section of Atlas photographs from newspapers and books showing jewels (a pearl bracelet in plate 9, a fashion model illustration in plate 10, the film star Brigitte Bardot with her mother in plate 10, a diamond brooch with a huge centrally placed gemstone, a regal diamond tiara and an elaborate diamond necklace with a crown motif symbolic of monarchy in plate 15). Like Baudelaire’s interest in prostitutes as a Parisian commodity, Richter displays imagery of pornography in photographs of 1967 in Atlas, as well as imagery of cities, among many other subjects. Photographs Richter collected of concentration camp victims figure importantly in the early part of Atlas.

Baudelaire, the renowned poet of modernity, was tormented by the traumatic memory-imagery of the old Paris while exploring Parisian modernity, including the presence of what he perceived as evil in modernity, in a new Paris both destroyed and being rebuilt by Baron Haussmann. Paris, based on Haussmann’s planning, became a model for the world of urban modernity. For Baudelaire, Paris became the fragmented city "where ghosts by daylight tug the passer’s sleeve" – ghosts of quarters of old Paris that Baudelaire sought to keep alive through his poetry even in the face of the building of the Haussmannian, new Paris.

Certainly, Germany was a place where Richter felt, within himself, the "ghosts" of the annihilated Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as well as the ghosts of his destroyed birthplace, Dresden. Baudelaire was alienated by the new Haussmannian Paris rising up around him, yet deeply connected to it, both bereaved and mourning through poetry his exile from the old Paris, yet willingly crossing borders to embrace modernity, inhabiting the new Paris and defying it in his poetry and prose at the same time. Richter, having crossed borders, exiling himself, freeing himself, from the ideology of East Germany, was similarly tormented. Richter’s torment was based upon the shame of the memory of the recent World War II and Holocaust history of his homeland. Richter presented this memory-laden imagery in his photo-paintings from 1962 to 1965.

So, to interact with some on-campus art, now knowing its art-historical background, I recommend a visit to the jewel that is the Sackler Museum – especially the first-floor gallery – to experience Gerhard Richter’s Table.

Photographs of Richter’s Table taken by Victoria Aschheim with permission of the Harvard Art Museum

[Caption: "Table" (1962, oil on canvas) by Gerhard Richter, in its plexiglass case at the Sackler Museum.]

[Caption: Richter's Atlas Sheet 10, 1962, www.gerhard-richter.com]