Just because I love this piece…

My apologies for the incredible delay in posts (this may be my 3rd apology for this sort of thing…), but life has been busy lately with starting a new job and a new internship.  My wonderful Museum Education Internship has ended, but it led me to an internship with Membership at the AIC, so I’m still surrounded by wonderful objects one day per week.  🙂

But enough about me…and onto Richter!  This post is purely about a piece that I absolutely love.  It is fairly large at over 6 feet tall, and it seems absolutely larger than life when seen hung on a wall well above eye level.  To give you an idea:

Gerhard Richter's "Woman Descending the Staircase," 1965

Me being an obnoxious nerdy summer intern

This was one of my favorite pieces to show to school groups on AIC tours.  I’d usually start out by asking about celebrities.

Me: What are some of your favorite celebrities?
Kids: “Beyonce.” “Hannah Montana (*obligatory shout from somewhere else in the group: “HANNAH MONTANA ISN’T REAL! It’s Mylie Cyrus…duh”).” “Lil’ Wayne.”
Me: And why do we like these people?  Why do we look up to them?
Kids: They’re rich! They’re pretty!  They have nice clothes! They have lots of women! (At this point, I would usually resist the urge to go on a feminist/anti-materialism rant, and just giggle along with them)

We’d talk about how instantaneous our culture has become, especially with celebrity culture.  Everywhere you look, there is a bright photo-shopped image up on a billboard or, better yet, a mug shot emblazoned on a magazine cover.  US Weekly magazine actually has a section called “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!” featuring these iconic people doing things that we, and they, do every day.  For example, in case you were wondering, Reese Witherspoon goes grocery shopping and John Mayer picks his nose.  Our celebrity culture is everywhere, and with a quick press of a button, you have an instant image of whoever doing whatever.

Because we are in an age that values instant information and constant clarity, images like Richter’s Woman frustrate us.  Who is she?  And perhaps more importantly, what kind of image is this?  Is it a painting or a photograph?  Why?  You could easily make the argument for either.  The blurred quality to the image makes us think that perhaps the camera caught the woman in motion, or that the camera itself was in motion.  The image does look like a blurred photograph, with highly photorealistic elements that look a little bit too perfect to be a painting.  However, the blurred sections of the image could lend themselves to look like brushstrokes…so what is the answer?!

BOTH!  Richter, using a projector, projected the image onto a canvas and painted the image to match the photo as perfectly as he could.  Once he was finished, he then took a squeegee (like what you would use to clean your car windows at the gas station) and squeegeed the painting, thus giving it the blurred effect that we see.  Why would he go to all of that effort just to make it blurry?  That is exactly why I love this image.  There is so much that we don’t know, which can either be looked at as mysterious or frustrating.  While we can guess all we want about who she is and what she does for a living…we actually have no idea.  Seriously.  Nowhere in any record kept or researched did Gerhard Richter ever record who this woman was.  I’ve had kids guess everything from Julia Roberts to Oprah; from adults, everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Sophia Loren.  And as soon as I tell them that it’s fine that they don’t know because we, indeed, have no idea either, they either look satisfied or totally pissed off.  “What do you mean you don’t know?”  We don’t know.  You have to slow down and enjoy the mystery a little bit.

Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," 1912, oil on canvas

Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," 1912, oil on canvas

I like to look at Richter’s painting as a nice segue between the past, when artists used painting to explore movement and used movement to explore painting, and the present, in which we have done everything in our power to stop motion from using botox to make our faces as still as photographs to using megapixels after megapixels to catch a still shot of something moving 60 miles per hour.  In Richter’s painting, he is exploring motion, medium and identity, all the while preserving the mystery involved in each.


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