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Review: Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau

Opening at the Alte Nationalgalerie on 16 March, Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau series explores the overarching theme of the possibilities and limitations of painting, successfully encapsulating the artist’s longstanding interest in the ability of art to reckon with issues of identity and collective memory.

Richter's Birkenau series. Photo: Alte Nationalgalerie via Facebook

Made up of four large-format, abstract paintings created in 2014, the series is the outcome of Richter’s long and in-depth engagement with the Holocaust and how one could possibly represent such an unparalleled genocide. With the works being described as ‘occupying a liminal space between showing and not-showing, documenting and commemorating’, I visited the Alte Nationalgalerie to experience this juxtaposition of notions for myself.

The series is said to have been born out of contact with Georges Didi-Huberman and his Images in Spite of All (2008), a book focusing on four clandestine photographs taken inside the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The aforementioned photographs are mounted on either side of the exhibition space, providing a point of reference from which to observe the paintings.

Seeing the photographs in their original form allows for a whole new level of perspective; to witness such atrocities captured, immortalised, and then transformed into art creates a sense of both discomfort and admiration at the artistic process.

The series began as a painted copy of the four photographs, but when this didn’t pan out, Richter began to gradually paint over them, slowly resulting in the abstract paintings we see today. Employing a technique common to the artist, paint was first applied with brushes, then spread, scoured, or scraped off again with squeegees, before the process was then repeated multiple times.

By moving further and further away from the original, Richter is said to engage in a ‘process of abstraction which ultimately refuses to directly depict the event’, finding a way to ‘draw on documentary material without actually displaying it’. Standing before the four paintings, it’s hard to feel anything other than an overwhelming sense of sorrow and grief for those the images depicted. The large areas of black and grey evoke a sober, pensive mood, and the rough, almost corroded surface aids in reflecting its disturbing origins.

Gerhard Richter. Photo: DW Deutsche Welle via Facebook

Opposite the four paintings a large, grey mirror has been strategically placed in order to pursue a second level of engagement. Glass and mirrors have long accompanied Richter’s paintings as his works cannot be understood as just ‘mere views or glimpses through a window’. It’s impossible to avoid your own reflection as you walk through the exhibit, with the mirrors incorporating you into the display, as well as becoming a popular spot to take an inconspicuous selfie.

On display until 3 October, the exhibition is a must for any of those interested in Richter or Holocaust art in general. The way in which the exhibition has been curated provides ample space and time in which the spectator can appreciate and reflect on the nature of the work surrounding them. As is the case with many exhibitions related to the Holocaust, I was naturally sceptical to see its execution, yet found its simple arrangement to be both captivating, respectful, and one I would recommend to any of those who find themselves in Berlin before its close.


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