Artists ask the bravest, toughest questions. Because artists want their questions heard and considered, typically they’ve asked them with equally big, direct, look-what-happened-here! canvases: Goya asked if the French army acted appropriately on the third of May. Picasso asked if Guernica was fairly targeted and bombed. It is not a surprise that a German painter such as Gerhard Richter would ask big questions about the Nazi era. Unlike Goya or Picasso, who made big history paintings, Richter does it with a small, 34-by-20-inch portrait based on a quarter-century-old family snapshot.
That painting, Uncle Rudi (1965), is arguably the greatest anti-portrait in 20th-century art. As I discussed here and here and here last week, Richter’s picture tells us little about the man in the World War II-era German officer’s uniform. Beyond the information in the title, Richter gives us no details about him.
Today it’s clear that Richter’s Uncle Rudi has been an enormously influential painting, an artwork that provided a new way for artists to raise questions about the horrific acts initiated by their own governments. (Artists only began to challenge their own governments’ militarism during and about wartime with the advent of Dada, just 50 years before Richter’s painting.) Rudi effectively introduced the critical deadpan, the power of quietly eviscerating truth into post-war art. As artists consider the Bush-Cheney torture regime, they have made good use of Richter’s playbook, using quiet, deadpan truth to ask big questions about our governments’ actions. (More on that tomorrow.)
Today I’ll take a look at how Rudi didn’t just challenge Germans to consider their role in the Nazi killing machine, but at how Rudi challenged German artists to expand their language, to re-establish progressiveness in German art, and to blur the lines that separated United States and Western European-influenced West German abstraction from Eastern European (and particularly East German) sanctioned figurative realism. Remarkably, Richter managed to challenge a people and her artists in a painting whose confrontation is masked by its seeming droll straightforwardness.
Uncle Rudi and Uncle Rudi
Is any kind of painting more straightforward, more traditional than a portrait? A portrait tells us who someone is or was. Often, subjects want their portrait painted so as to demonstrate their import, their power, their position. Portrait subjects want to be remembered.
Which makes Richter’s Uncle Rudi a notable exception. The painting is based on a photograph, a particularly indifferent snapshot. Rudi is posed in a non-descript place. He slouches and his grin is of the hurry-up-and-take-the-picture variety. Nothing about it says, “Remember me!” Richter transformed the snap into a painting, as deadpan a painting of a smiling German World War II officer can be, a just-the-facts presentation. In the 44 years since Richter painted his uncle, we’ve learned that he was killed-in-action in Normandy in 1944, a too-typical example of the family member who served his nation in wartime — except, of course, his nation was the most horrific regime of the 20th-century, Nazi Germany.
In 1965, when Richter made Uncle Rudi, the painting would have reminded Germans of those conflicted feelings. Most Germans had family who had fought for their nation and their nation’s regime was a manifestation of evil. While Richter painted Rudi, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trails were underway. The trials revealed the barbarism of a few Germans, but, of course it was not only the death-camp killers that were responsible for the horrors. Rudi reminded Germans that many of them — most of them even — had a Nazi in the family. But the painting doesn’t moralize, it doesn’t pity or self-pity, accuse or suggest to Germans how they might consider their own Rudi, their own roles in the Nazi machine. The picture simply presented incontrovertible evidence of something that many Germans couldn’t deny: There was national culpability for what happened. Think about how it has affected us and the world. Remember. Uncle Rudi is confrontation-by-whisper.
(It’s worth emphasizing that Richter’s family knew Nazi evil first-hand: The regime for which Richter’s uncle fought in Normandy murdered Richter’s aunt. Uncle Rudi reminded viewers not just of the Nazi they all knew, but of the Nazi Germany in which many had lived.)
Rudi didn’t just create a new, quiet way of asking questions about art, it was a specific challenge to West German and European artists, too. In the catalogue for “Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Culture,” (which is currently on view at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg) scholar Sabine Eckmann notes that that straightforward paintings of figures were not en vogue in the West in the years after World War II: Abstraction ruled. In the East, socialist realism was preferred. That ideologically-driven dichotomy dealt a double-whammy to the likelihood that artists in West Germany would portray figures in anything approaching a straightforward manner, in the manner in which, say, Richter presented his uncle. It made Rudi a challenge not just to Germans and their sense of responsibility for the past, but a challenge to Germans and German artists who were seemingly locked into politically-driven art-making modes.
Richter straddled the border by using his already-trademark blur, a technique Richter had introduced into his paintings of figures as early as 1963, but which didn’t become his default until 1964. I think that Richter’s embrace of the blur was part of his challenging of Germans, both Eastern and Western.
Eckmann notes in the aforementioned essay that within mere months of the fall of the Nazi regime, German artists raced to return to expressionist painting, a comfortable nod to a familiar, safe, pre-Nazi German artistic lineage. When Richter made his great paintings about Nazism and its impact on his family, I think that the controlled blur may have been his way of rejecting ‘traditional’ German expressionism, while simultaneously allowing representation that wasn’t quite realistic enough to recall Nazi-era or East German-sanctioned socialist realism. (In the family-snapshot paintings the Richter blur comes with an added bonus: It evokes some wistful nostalgia that comes across as personal and memorial rather than hero-recalling.)
In the years since Uncle Rudi, Richter’s confrontational deadpan has become a standard way for artists to present a controversial, troubling, hitting-close-to-home topic. In my next post I’ll look at how two contemporary artists have followed Richter’s example to urge us to examine how the Bush-Cheney regime unlawfully detained and tortured people in our country’s name.