Gerhard Richter Dϋsenjäger, 1963

"For the first time in Germany, we are showing paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop and the like are appropriate. Pop Art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon and turns their attributes, formulations and content, through artifice, into art. It thus fundamentally changes the face of modern painting and inaugurates an aesthetic revolution. Pop Art has rendered conventional painting - with all its sterility, its isolation, its artificiality, its taboos and its rules - entirely obsolete."
Gerhard Richter, "Letter to a newsreel company," April 29, 1963, quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993

 

 

Gerhard Richter’s Düsenjäger dates from 1963, the most important juncture in his career, when he had begun to create the Photo Paintings that were to garner such recognition. This picture dates from the very inception of Pop Art, and reveals both the similarities and differences between its incarnations on each side of the Atlantic. With its muted tones and political undertones, this is the embodiment of ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the German Pop Art movement founded at precisely this time by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg (who later became known as the gallerist Konrad Fischer). Looking at the official list of Richter’s paintings, which he began only the previous year, the importance of Düsenjäger becomes all the more apparent: it is listed as number '13-a,' one of the earliest of his recognised works. In addition, Düsenjäger is part of a small and celebrated group of pictures of warplanes, created by Richter between 1963 and 1964. Of these, four are in museum collections, all of them in his native Germany. Düsenjäger and another painting, Bomber, were the only ones from this series created in 1963, the others all coming the following year, underscoring its seminal importance.

Gerhard Richter Bomber (Bombers), 1963. Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg © Gerhard Richter 2016

Richter created his first Photo Painting in 1962, but it was in 1963, the year Düsenjäger was painted, that he began to see himself as a Pop artist, having read about the American movement in Art International. Richter had been struck in particular by Roy Lichtenstein’s parallel exploration of means and themes similar to his own. Lichtenstein’s own crisp, media-based images dated from only the year before Richter’s Photo Paintings. Under the wide canopy of the Pop Art umbrella, many of Richter’s American contemporaries took source material from the emphatically dynamic worlds of comic books and advertising, creating works that often appeared as brash and colourful celebrations of consumer society. Looking at Lichtenstein’s WHAAM!, also from 1963 (Tate, London), there is a palpable sense of excitement, drama, even glamour. It is as though Lichtenstein was channelling the spirit of comic strips, or movies like the John Wayne vehicle, Jet Pilot, produced by Howard Hughes a decade earlier. Similarly, Jim Rosenquist fetishised technology in his billboard-like compositions.

Roy Lichtenstein Whaam!, 1963. Tate, London © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In Düsenjäger, Richter reveals some of that excitement in the pink, and in the visible sense of velocity. With its blush of colour, Düsenjäger avoids the constraints of the grisaille that characterised many of Richter’s earliest Photo Paintings. The blurring effect that Richter often brings to these pictures, highlighting their artifice, is here used to vivid effect, with the combed brushwork adding a sense of dynamism to Düsenjäger that is only heightened by the composition, with the nose of the plane escaping the picture surface, hinting at a hastily-taken photographic source. This gives a sense of a frozen moment of speed, action, activity.

Aviation Show in Hannover Langenhagen: the Fiat G.91, nicknamed Gina, an Italian fighter aircraft.

Richter’s own vision of the jet is complicated by the counterpoint of his own ambiguous feelings about and experiences of war. After all, he had grown up near Dresden, viewing the Second World War through the eyes of a child. "I thought it was great," he has said. "I envied the soldiers who were allowed to take part in the war. I was fascinated, like all kids, or all boys. I wandered through the trenches. Then the Russian planes came, the ones that had shot up the convoys. I thought it was all marvellous. I envied the soldiers sleeping in the barn. It took a soldier to bring me to my senses. You snotty little brat, you should get a right spanking. That gave me a fright. That gave me something to think about." (Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004, in Gerhard Richter. Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters. 1961-2007, London, 2009)

Düsenjäger, and the other 1963 painting of a warplane, Bomber, both tap into that heady and complex combination of excitement and terror. "It’s a mixed feeling, and it’s no good suppressing the fascination," Richter has stated (Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990). He expanded on this idea, explaining that these pictures were not intended as anti-war, although they are sometimes being read as such: "Pictures like that don’t do anything to combat war. They only show one tiny aspect of the subject of war—maybe only my own childish feelings of fear and fascination with war and with weapons of that kind" (Richter quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993).

While the subject matter appears heavy in Bomber or indeed in Düsenjäger, Richter insists that it was selected as part of the programme of provocative detachment that he, Polke and Lueg were exploring at that time as they garnered attention with their German declension of Pop: "We [artists influenced by Pop Art] refused to take anything seriously. That was important for survival. We were unable to see the statement in the work, neither the audience nor me. We rejected it, it didn’t exist" (Richter quoted in Robert Storr, "Interview with Gerhard Richter," Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting). In a sense, Richter’s Düsenjäger can be seen as a cynical and provocative deadpan response to the changing times. The positivity that had driven the post-war reconstruction of West Germany had been tarnished in recent years by Neo-Nazi attacks on synagogues, the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the overarching tensions of the Cold War. Wounds that had not yet had time to heal were being reopened.

Gerhard Richter XL 513, 1964. Collection Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden © Gerhard Richter 2016

It is against this backdrop that Richter provocatively painted Düsenjäger, as well as Bomber, which showed American planes from the Second World War dropping their colossal payloads from the air onto Germany below. The war which no-one talked about was now being committed to oil on canvas, the elephant in the room becoming unavoidably obvious. Richter used the subject of war in part as a means of taunting, or at least discomfiting, his audience. He was essentially saying that it was fair game. This was demonstrated more vividly in his second exhibition in 1963. While the first had been in an abandoned building in Dusseldorf, the second, entitled Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, took place in a furniture store. Richter and Lueg provided various decorations including roe antlers which all supposedly dated from 1938-42, as well as a run of books by Winston Churchill, the British wartime premier. That notion of "Capitalist Realism" was enshrined in the decision to bring these things into the open, into a mock-domestic interior in a furniture display.

The same process is encapsulated in Düsenjäger. Even the specific type of plane probes the notion of German identity during this complex political period. Düsenjäger shows a Fiat G-91, nicknamed ‘Gina,’ an aeroplane that would have been in the news a great deal in Germany at the time. It had been designed partly as a light-weight strike jet for NATO. However, it was ultimately employed mainly by the Italian and West German air forces. Indeed, demand from the Luftwaffe in West Germany led to an agreement by which a consortium of manufacturers created them under licence—the first military aircraft to have been assembled in the nation since the end of the Second World War. The first of these had its maiden flight in 1961, only two years before Düsenjäger was painted. In Düsenjäger, the extended cockpit implies that this may be the G-91T, the training variant, adding another layer of meaning: this may be a picture, not of war, but of wargames, an image of a new pilot being inculcated into the ways of conflict.

The Gina was an image of post-war rehabilitation of West Germany, which was now on the front line of a new conflict. As such, it featured in the press, promoting NATO and West Germany’s role within it. In Düsenjäger, the bands of monochrome above and below the segment of sky reinforce the idea that this picture has been taken from a print source, a magazine or a newspaper. Richter often took his subject matter from newspapers or from his own family photographs, adopting what can be seen as a more personal, grounded approach. This was all the more true of the pictures he created that appeared to touch upon the subject of warfare, such as the fighters and bombers, or the old snapshot of his Uncle Rudi in his 1940s German army uniform, reflecting this more ambivalent relationship to conflict.

Gerhard Richter Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi)

Unlike the brash, often colourful works of the American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein that were gaining increasing attention in Europe during this time, Richter’s paintings retain a cynical inscrutability and distance. His Pop Art played with images from the media and from his own collection, transforming them into paintings in a manner that pointed to the absurdity of the entire notion of representation in the post-war era. Richter had initially been trained as an artist in East Germany, and was therefore used to such movements as Socialist Realism—when he had been exposed to the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana a few years earlier, he had been so struck by their boldness, their escaping the confines of representation, that he had defected to the West, hoping to enjoy a similar freedom.

Ultimately, it was in copying photographs onto canvas that he had found a strategy that allowed him to continue to paint, a discovery he made only a couple of years after his arrival in West Germany. "Being painted, they no longer tell of a specific situation, and the representation becomes absurd," Richter has explained. "As a painting, it changes both its meaning and its information content" (Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993). In a sense, then, the entire notion of painting figuratively, in opposition to the Informel in Europe or the machismo of Action Painting that was still so prominent in the U.S., was a humorous attack in its own right. Richter had found a path that both ridiculed the entire process of painting, and allowed him to continue in his chosen vocation.

The subject matter, according to Richter, was essentially random: the medium was the message, as Marshall McLuhan would write the year after Düsenjäger was painted.