German artist Gerhard Richter is one of the most influential artists alive, his career spanning more than half a century, covering almost every style and genre. The first major exhibition of his work in Australia, Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, finally brings some of the artist’s most important work to our shores.

The exhibition, which features works drawn together from public and private collections in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, including the artist’s own collection, was curated by Dr Rosemary Hawker from Griffith University and Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow from QAGOMA and will feature works such as Richter’s iconic portrait Reader, his vivid Orchid and his quartet of abstract panels Birkenau, painted over photographs from Nazi extermination camps.

Gerhard Richter, Reprise, Opera Queensland, QAGOMAOpera Queensland’s Patrick Nolan with QAGOMA curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow and Gerhard Richter’s Abstract painting (726), 1990. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario.

So what is it about Richter’s work that draws people in? “It’s highly emotional,” Barlow says. “He’s known for having this almost photo-realistic style, but then it has this slight blur – like you’re looking at a photograph out of focus.”

Richter also creates large-scale abstract works, drawing his layers of paint across the surface of the canvas using a squeegee. “It’s
a very physical, quite performative process for making those works,” says Barlow. “The way that you get this blurred, running
together of colours, gives this similar kind of blur again as if we’re looking at a photograph of someone or something moving. This sense of trying to capture focus and unexpected emotion are some of the really interesting things about him as an artist.”

Gerhard RichterGerhard Richter, Germany b.1932, Skull (548-1) 1983, Oil on canvas, 55 x 50cm, Gerhard Richter Archive, Dresden, Germany. Permanent loan from a private collection © Gerhard Richter 2017 (0084)

“He has many guises as to how he approaches making his work. He is always looking at how images work in our own lives and in his personal life, but also at how they operate in the larger world. We see him really testing that over the course of almost six decades of his practice. He comes up with special ways of working with paint and representing the world, representing images, but then he’s always coming up with new inventions as well.”

Music is also a thread that weaves through Richter’s work. “Music is very important to him,” Barlow says. “We know that he listens to a lot of music whilst he’s painting. He’s made a large suite of works dedicated to and thinking about Bach. But also Cage as well, the Tate in London have a beautiful suite inspired by Cage.”

But there’s another musical aspect to Richter’s work, one which inspired the title The Life of Images. “Richter tends to kind of pick something up and then cycle back to it later on. So sometimes it might be an image from art history, or this form of still life or landscape or portraiture, but sometimes it’s his own work.”

“One of his paintings, for instance – one of his abstracts – he’s actually cut it into little bands (a digital image of it), and then cut them in half, and then in half again,” Barlow explains. “I find sometimes in the way that he works with this kind of mathematical slicing and stretching and mirroring, for me it has an interesting relation to ideas of composition. You might have a kind of rhythm and pattern, but then create a moment of disruption or a variation upon that pattern.”

Gerhard RichterGerhard Richter, Germany b.1932, Abstract painting (726) 1990, Oil on canvas, 2 canvases: 250 x 350cm (overall); 250 x 175cm each Collection: Tate. Purchased 1992 © Gerhard Richter 2016 (1203/2016)

Barlow also sees one of the largest displays in the exhibition as having an interesting relationship with music. “I’m calling it the spine of the exhibition,” she says.

A 50-metre long section of the gallery hosts a large work titled Atlas. “That’s almost like if you imagine an artist sketch book or scrap book or working diary that runs from 1961 to 2014,” Barlow explains. “There’s a really interesting visual rhythm, and sometimes you see him working repeatedly with particular images. They might be clouds, or family photographs, or drawings of spaces, so it’s like going into his mind, in a way. It’s got an interesting balance between order and chaos and I think music is constantly finding interesting ways to bring these different forces and tensions together.”

These ideas make Richter’s work eminently suitable for multidisciplinary projects, such as Reprise, which will see artists from Opera Queensland (following the success of Sensory in 2017) filling the gallery with music. “I think those ideas definitely key in well,” says Barlow, “that deep passion and interest in music.”

For Opera Queensland’s new Artistic Director Patrick Nolan, the atmosphere created by the Richter exhibition is ideally suited for music. “It’s a very reflective, internal exhibition,” Nolan says. “It’s not about big showy numbers. It’s a much more reflective space.”

As the audience enters the exhibition, they’ll be greeted by the sound of Bach’s Cello Suites before moving into a slightly more formal concert programme featuring the work of composers such as Schubert and Strauss. For Nolan, the juxtaposition of a composer like Richard Strauss – “who really wrestled with the idea of song and what song is” – with Richter, who “dealt with the idea of painting and what painting is” makes perfect sense. “If you look at the body of Richter’s work, it’s very much about an investigation of the nature of painting and the nature of what it means to create an image,” he explains. “What is an image? What is it doing? We were interested in looking at composers who had a similar response to the idea of song, and how we engage with the idea of song.”

Gerhard RichterGerhard Richter, Germany b.1932, Orchid (848-9) 1997, Oil on aludibond, 29 x 37cm, Private Collection © Gerhard Richter 2017 (0084)

Music by Hans Werner Henze will also feature on the programme. “He has written an extraordinary body of work and songs,” says Nolan. “And again, he has interrogated the idea of song and what song is. We’re taking three of his songs from the suite
Six Songs from the Arabian, which is a really very beautiful piece of music.”

Just as Richter often develops artworks in response to works of music, Reprise will also feature a new set of songs, commissioned especially for the event. “Paul Grabowsky has had an abiding love of Richter since he lived in Berlin back in the early 80s, and he first encountered his work there,” Nolan says. “I knew Paul had this relationship with Richter, so I invited him to write some new songs in response to the exhibition. He’s been working with Megan Washington, who’s writing the lyrics.”

“Any exhibition is a deeply personal experience,” says Nolan. “Certainly for me – that’s why I love going to an art gallery. There’s something wonderful about that relationship between the very private experience of encountering the works of art, but doing it in public. By adding music, I hope that the audience contemplates or encounters the works of art in a way that sheds something new or different on that experience. In the same way, I hope when they listen to the music that there is a conversation between the two. That it’s possible for these different forms to work together and talk to each other.”

Opera Queensland’s Reprise is at QAGOMA February 3. Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images is at QAGOMA until February 4.