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17. Paintings by Gerhard Richter being moved by student assistants in preparation for Strategy: Get Arts

Strategy: Get Arts was effectively the UK debut for Gerhard Richter, who is appreciated today as one of the most important painters of the post-1945 era.

Paintings by Gerhard Richter being moved by student assistants in preparation for Strategy: Get Arts. Photo

Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is considered by many to be one of the greatest painters of the post-1945 period. The idea for an exhibition of Düsseldorf-based artists in Edinburgh started to take shape in Richter’s studio on 29 January 1970, two days after Richard Demarco left Edinburgh for Germany.

Uecker and Richter were involved in leading the discussion with Demarco, with various other artists present. At this point, 19 artists were suggested as potential contributors. Later on, this number would expand to 35.

Three weeks before the exhibition was due to open, Demarco wrote to Richter inviting him to stay at his home and ‘also discover the beauty of Edinburgh and the Scottish landscape’. This letter is in the Richard Demarco Archive at SNGMA. Demarco wrote: ‘

I am especially grateful to you for the way you helped me to make the Exhibition of Art from Düsseldorf possible.

Richard Demarco, in a letter to Gerhard Richter, 1970

This would be the first time Richter’s work had ever been shown in the UK. By the summer of 1970, Richter had decided that his own contribution would comprise seven oil-on-canvas landscape paintings of varying sizes:

  1. Corsica Fire (1969)
  2. Evening Mood (1969)
  3. Evening Landscape with Figure (1970)
  4. Landscape with Clump of Trees (1970)
  5. Canary Landscape (1970)
  6. Alps (1970)
  7. Field Mill (1970).

According to the Gerhard Richter website, which has webpages devoted to the artworks shown in Strategy: Get Arts, paintings 1 to 5 were all included in other exhibitions after SGA, whilst paintings 6 and 7 were only shown at SGA:

Find out more on the Gerhard Richter website

There are no clear photographs of Richter paintings in situ at SGA. It is known that one of them, Field Mill, hung in the entrance hall to ECA (as discussed in a letter from Richter to Demarco, accessible in the Richard Demarco Archive, SNGMA); Canary Landscape was hung in a connecting corridor, closest to the entrance hall, on the ground floor of the Sculpture Court (as glimpsed in the background of a George Oliver photograph that primarily shows Günther Uecker with his installation for Sound-Scene); and Corsica Fire can just be seen along the corridor outside studio E.24 (again glimpsed in a George Oliver photograph), marking the entrance to that studio space where more Richter paintings could be found. The SGA student helper Alexander Hamilton has confirmed that the remaining paintings hung in E.24.

First show of Gerhard Richter's work in the UK

Paintings by Gerhard Richter being moved by student assistants in preparation for Strategy: Get Arts. Photo
Photo © George Oliver, Richard Demarco Archive, National Galleries of Scotland.

The fact that there is no clear photo-capture of Richter’s paintings, as well as there being a lack of press coverage of his work is intriguing. The commissioned photographer, George Oliver, seems to have been more engaged with SGA in process, and all the dramatic ‘happenings’ and forms of art practice not usually seen.

Richter’s oil paintings may have suffered from ‘appearing’ more conventional, however radical they actually were, as well as being dispersed across ECA Main Building, rather than gathered together in one space where they would have had more collective impact.

Richter’s landscapes have sometimes been compared with those of the early 19th-century German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (both had strong connections to Dresden), especially after Richter’s first retrospective at the Kunstverein in Düsseldorf in 1971, although whether his paintings can also be interpreted as expressions of cultural nationalism is a far more complicated issue.

It should be noted that three of the paintings shown at SGA were based on Richter’s holiday snapshots of Corsica (Atlas sheet: 180) and the Canary Islands (Atlas sheet: 174), taken in 1968 and 1969 respectively, so are not specifically German landscapes.

Much later, in the summer of 1994, paintings by Richter were exhibited in Edinburgh, London, and Munich at the important exhibition, The Romantic Spirit in German Art: 1790–1990, co-curated by Keith Hartley, Chief Curator at SNGMA. Hartley would also be involved with a major retrospective on Richter at the NGS Complex in Edinburgh (8 November 2008 – 4 January 2009).

For much more on Richter’s contribution to SGA, please see Christian Weikop, Strategy: Get Arts. 35 Artists Who Broke the Rules (EUP, 2021).