Gerhard Richter

14. Feb. 45


Not on display

Gerhard Richter born 1932
Photograph, off-set print on paper, mounted on aluminium behind glass
Image: 695 × 545 mm
Purchased 2016


14. Feb. 45 2002 consists of a medium-sized black and white appropriated and retouched photograph, printed large and shown behind highly reflective mirror-glass. The frame of the work is painted grey which, in Richter’s own words, contributes to presenting the image as ‘a work like a painting, not painted’ (Richter in email correspondence with Tate curator Mark Godfrey, 24 March 2015). The original photograph, which was most likely taken on 14 February 1945, was shot from an American warplane and shows an aerial view of the aftermath of the bombing on 13–14 February 1945 of Cologne, the Germany city where Richter has been based since the 1980s. In the image there is an almost abstract depiction of bomb craters left around the southern edge of the city as well as the ruin of a bridge after the bombings. Richter made five works based on this image, all dating from 2002. For the first, numbered 881 in Richter’s catalogue raisonné, he greatly enlarged the photograph to 2770 by 2100 mm and mounted it behind a sheet of glass. This glass is unframed and is permanently installed in a church in Cologne where it is displayed leaning against a wall according to the artist’s wishes. Richter subsequently made four smaller works, numbering them 881–1 to 881–4 and giving them grey painted frames. This work owned by Tate is one of these, and is numbered 881–3.

The origins of this work can be traced back to the early 1960s. Richter’s formative years had been spent at the Dresden Fine Arts Academy, where he had enrolled in the mural painting department. The artist then fled to West Berlin in 1961, shortly before the construction of the Berlin Wall. He settled in Düsseldorf, home to one of the most vibrant art scenes in Germany. This move coincided with a change of direction in his work, as he began to introduce photography into his practice. Referring to this new medium, he has explained:

It is perfect; it does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous and unconditional. It has no style. The photograph is the only picture that can truly convey information, even if it is technically faulty and the object can barely be identified … I was surprised by photography, which we all use so massively every day. Suddenly, I saw it in a new way, as a picture that offered me a new view, free of all the conventional criteria I had always associated with art. It had no style, no composition, no judgement. It freed me from personal experience. For the first time, there was nothing to it: it was pure picture.
(Quoted in Elger 2009, pp.49–50.)

Although Richter has used photographs since the early 1960s as the basis for his paintings – and also in Atlas 1962–ongoing, his encyclopaedic inventory of images – 14. Feb. 45 is distinct from the other work Richter was making in the early 2000s, in particular his glass constructions of 2002–4 (such as 11 Panes (886–5) 2004, Tate AR00026) and the Silicate series of 2002 (such as Abstract Painting (Silicate) (880–4) 2002, Tate AR00029). In these, rather than using a photograph as the source material from which to make a painting, Richter appropriated an archival photograph and chose not to translate it into another medium.

14. Feb. 45 nonetheless connects to a theme that has reappeared in Richter’s work since the 1960s and one that affected him as a child in Dresden: the bombing of German cities during the Second World War. Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter left the city during the war but returned to it in 1951, at which point it was still in ruins after being heavily bombed in February 1945. The memory of the bombings would be generally repressed in post-war German culture, however Richter first confronted this subject in a series of aeroplane paintings from 1963–4. Bombers 1963 (Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg) shows bombs being dropped from Allied aircraft. Another fleet of bombers is depicted in Mustang Squadron 1964 (private collection), which Richter later used as the basis for his photographic edition of the same title dating from 2005 (see Mustang Squadron 2005, Tate L02921).

Richter’s series of ‘Townscapes’ paintings also engage the subject of aerial bombardment. Although based on photographs of cities following their reconstruction after the war, these were painted in a near-abstract manner. As a result, as Richter remarked later, ‘when I look back to the Townscapes now, they do seem to me to recall certain images of the destruction of Dresden during the war’ (quoted in Tate Modern 2011, p.76). The art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh has described Townscape Paris 1968 (Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart) as ‘an allegorical reiteration of a destruction already fully accomplished by history’ (Tate Modern 2011, p.76). The memory of the bombings of German cities would have been prominent in Richter’s mind in 2002, the year he took on a major commission to create a window for the south transept of Cologne cathedral, a part of the building that was damaged during the bombing. Richter’s commission – a grid of coloured glass squares – does not overtly tackle the subject of the bombings, but the less well known donation of 14. Feb. 45 (881) 2002 to the cathedral can be seen as a counterpart to the commissioned project.

On 11 September 2001 Richter was en route to New York City when two aeroplanes struck the World Trade Center and his flight was re-routed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is likely that Richter connected the memory of the bombings of German cities in the Second World War to the events of that day in the United States. Made just months after the attack on the World Trade Center, 14. Feb. 45 and its related works can be seen as an initial response to these events and perhaps a reflection on the repetitions that characterise history. As he was making 14. Feb. 45 Richter was already at work on the beginnings of a painting that he only completed in 2005, September (Museum of Modern Art, New York), showing the World Trade Center after the planes had hit its towers.

Further reading
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009.
Robert Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, London 2010.
Mark Godfrey and Nicholas Serota (eds.) with Camille Morineau and Dorothee Brill, Gerhard Richter: Panorama: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2011, reproduced p.259.

Juliette Rizzi and Mark Godfrey
June 2015

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