I recently read a short article in the New York Times about the artist, Gerhard Richter. The article mentioned that he is the most famous living artist. Maybe, so it says.
He and I are both artists. We are the same age, both born in 1932. Yet we come out of very different back grounds. I was born in London, England, he in Dresden, Germany and I am intrigued by this.
The English summer in 1939 was said to be one of the most glorious summers England had seen . For me it was . My father had a job on the London Transport as a conductor. Not much of a job but coming out of a depression, it was very secure. We had moved from a drab apartment in Camden Town to North Finchley London, which was paradise, a house with French windows looking out to a small but beautiful garden.
My father had an allotment which is a small plot of land rented for a small fee to cultivate. We had fresh fruit and vegetables all year. I learned so much from that allotment. I was in my formative years and the images from that allotment I feel have influenced my work. That bucolic paradise was brought to an abrupt halt in 1939 by Adolf Hitler.
I wonder what Gerhard Richter was doing at this point.
War broke out. Dad went into the army, my mother was left with four kids and we had to move into a drab council house. It was a shock. So much changed. We went from playing on what we called Rocking Horse Hill where blackberries grew to playing on pavements where nothing grew but a few weeds. There was a cemetery across the street and we learned to sing “Touch your collar never swallow never catch the Fever ” as the hearses passed, pulled by shiny black horses.
Outside our building, called Willow House, a makeshift shed was built for testing gas masks. We had been issued these gas masks in cheap cardboard boxes. We could look through the shed windows and watch people take off their masks to get a hit of gas. They and we came out with tearing eyes.
What was Richter doing at this point, I wonder.
We went on to suffer through the Blitz. Like the glorious summer of 1939, the winter of 1939 -40 was the coldest winter on record. My mother ended up in hospital with pleurisy and us kids, two girls two boys, ended up in Dr. Barnardo’s Home. We were prepared to be shipped to Canada – hair cuts, new suits, tags and ready to go. But my mother would not sign the papers needed for us to go. She signed herself out of hospital and took us home. That ship we were slated to be on was sunk off of southern Ireland by a U Boat. It was a Red Cross ship. Few survived. We have been forever grateful to our Mum’s intuition.
Meanwhile, people in Germany were living quite well, or at least not being uprooted as we were. Rationing was hard on the British people and did not completely end until 1953. The Germans did not experience rationing till late in the war, then after that were helped out by the Marshall Plan, from which Britain got scant help.
Since the tough times we suffered due to the war, I have had a hard time understanding or warming to Germans. I try but something always wells up and I think of the child hood they disrupted, not just mine but millions of others. I even spent one year in Germany in the RAF in 1950. It was in the small town of Buckeburg in the British sector. We where stationed in a barracks that had been a Gestapo headquarters, a four story brick building well appointed with heat and hot showers and no more than four to a room. I often wondered what it must have been like with the likes of Richter’s dad, who was in the SS, strutting around.
One of my jobs was running a garbage truck that picked up garbage from officers off camp housing. The three men who worked the detail seemed old to me, I was 19 , they where around mid thirties. They would criticize me and the English for not joining them against the Russians. At the same time, we would be driving by the death camp Belsen where these guys told me the gullies around the camp ran red with blood. They still did not understand why we did not join them. There was no arguing with them, they had a mind set.
I could go on about the way life was changed due to WW2 . How did it change Richter?
I counted eight schools and three evacuations and was out of school at age fourteen. Was Richter out of school at fourteen? We played cowboys and Indians with bows and arrows and twigs for pistols. Richter talks of playing soldiers with real guns and wanting to march off with soldiers to war.
Richter has a picture of his dad in uniform on his web site. It makes me sick to look at it and is the reason I did this painting of him. The gestapo where just plain evil. If you look closely he actually is grinning but he looks like the skull, the symbol they wore on their hats.
It is hard to forget what they did and I am not sure we should . Like the Jewish people, we must keep reminding ourselves that these situations could come about again. The sins of the father cannot be blamed on his children but the children must understand what havoc their fathers caused and be forever reminded never to repeat it.
This painting is disturbing , but it is the job of art to remind us of these terrible times , as Goya did Picasso did and many other artists have done .
My work is not anywhere near like Gerhard Richter’s . He did a happening but that was years after we did happenings in New York City and Provincetown. He makes gigantic heroic paintings which seem to fit with the idea that the bigger the art work the bigger the price and the bigger the price, the bigger the fame.
But one must remember a painting is only as big as the emotion it emits .Too large can leave one wondering why. The painting by Michelangelo is huge in the Sistine Chapel. It is awe inspiring but does it evoke as much emotion and feeling as say van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” which is very small by comparison but in my estimation evokes more feeling. The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by the Pope to impress the masses on the importance of the church. The Potato Eaters by van Gogh was painted to show the condition the poor lived in.
I wish Gerhard Richter well as he is not responsible for his dad’s sins but he does have to live with the knowledge. I am glad to say I am happy not to have such a burden to carry.
With all of his success, I am sure he suffers with doubts at times, as most artists do. We are both painting on a daily basis and still searching for that elusive truth at 81 years of age.