Gerhard Richter: Panorama (Tate Modern)

Richter distrusts the perfection of his own art.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Tate Modern, London SE1

In the mid-1960s, a few years after he had smuggled himself and his young wife out of East Germany and into the west, Gerhard Richter wrote a note in his diary: "I like everything that has no style - dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings. (Because style is violence and I am not violent.)" One way of looking at Tate Modern's fabulous retrospective of a half-century of Richter's painting is as a tireless effort to hold true to that statement. If we take all style to be an imposition of the self on a subject, an act of violence, Richter is the ultimate pacifist painter. As soon as he threatens mastery, which he does unner­vingly often, he withdraws from the act. Every time his painting appeared to resolve itself into something understandably Richteresque, the painter took to his heels and started again from a different place altogether.

There is both a triumph and a difficulty in this. The triumph is everywhere apparent in Tate Modern's show. The difficulty lies in the contrast of these starting points, which range from the purest abstraction to the sharpest realism. Richter has always had the facility and determination to be just about any painter he wanted to be, or more than one painter at once. As he has reminded himself and his audience over the years, he is capable of a Vermeer-like precision in his handling of light and paint. You could gaze all morning at his single Candle (1982) or his Reader (1994), in which sunlight falls on a woman and her newspaper with in­effable candour, or Betty (1988) - his portrait of his eldest daughter on the verge of womanhood, turned away from the camera in a sweatshirt of blood-red flowers - and not tire of their inspired mimesis. He can do realism and make it look magical, almost devotional.

Yet mostly Richter distrusts this perfection and refuses it. In 1972, he represented West Germany at the Venice Biennale and spent a lot of time looking at Titian. He brought home in his pocket a postcard of that painter's Annunciation and subsequently created a version of it. The painting is shown here in a room that also contains his mesmerising triptych of clouds of the same period; it picks up their haziness and is tempted towards vapour. The title, Annunciation after Titian, is laced with reality and regret: the storytelling certainties of the late Renaissance are no longer available to the contemporary painter, Richter seems to suggest. Precision involves too much faith, too little doubt.

In another room, we see Richter dwelling on still lifes that also fade into myopia. Of his efforts with a bowl of lilies, he observed: "The result was so unbearable that I smudged all the nuances until the painting looked acceptable." It is no good depicting life when its eclipse is
already ingrained.

Richter, like the late writer W G Sebald, with whom he shares much of his understanding of the immanence of history, of death in life, was born into the greatest devastation mankind had known. His formative years were spent living on the outskirts of Dresden; he was a child recruit to the Hitler Youth; and he witnessed the destruction of his home city and everything he knew in the bombing of 1945, as a 13-year-old. The shock and implications of that carnage have never left his painting.

When he first came west, just before the Berlin Wall went up, Richter painted the past from which he and his countrymen were divided in his series of Allied planes, moving in formation in eerie black and white. Painting from photographs seemed to resolve, for him, the questions of how to depict honestly this recent past that most were determinedly forgetting; the subject, his biography, had been chosen for him. He carried across the border a family album of photos, all he had left of his relatives, whom he never saw again. For four years, he set about obsessively observing where he had come from in those unfocused frames: his clown-like father with a lapdog; himself as a baby, being cradled by his distinctly Aryan aunt Marianne; his uncle Rudi in full Wehrmacht dress uniform, smiling proudly into the lens.

Almost at the same time in the west, in the 1960s, he was aware of and, to some extent, seduced by a sense of artistic liberty. In one of the most abrupt dislocations in the life of any great painter, he tried abstract expressionism for size, painting walls of coloured squares pinched from DIY paint charts. He wondered a good deal about glass and optics and took on board how, in most people's eyes, painting might be dead - but stuck with it anyway.

There is a morbidly sensual painting of his first wife, Ema, coming down the stairs naked in 1966, that is a direct response to the anarchic implications of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. It is a statement of wavering faith in the possibilities of painting as a human act, a gesture of love, even, that looks something like profound in this context.

In the years since, he has lived and painted with full awareness of the divisions that he encountered then; his abstraction never loses its sense of being rooted in the corporeal, breathing world, while his various realisms never let us forget abstraction. Some paintings - say, the ghostly pair of pictures of a newspaper photograph of a man murdered, or September, Richter's response to the 2001 attacks - hover between both possibilities before your eyes.

Do you get to know the painter in this remarkable retrospective? There are a couple of self-portraits in the exhibition, in which Richter appears in scratched and smudged black and white, as if seen through the thick glass of a misty lens. In one picture, it is hard to gauge his expression, though there are hints of despair; in the other, which shows him beside a friend, he might be smiling.

“Gerhard Richter: Panorama" runs until 8 January 2012. For more details visit: tate.org.uk/modern

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