This issue contains:
>> Interview with Benjamin Buchloh
>> Eight Grey - an introduction
>> Gerhard Richter in the Collection of the Deutsche Bank
>> Installation
>> The Lunch Lectures at Deutsche Guggenheim
>> Richter’s Mirror Metaphors in an Art Historical Context
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Richter’s Mirror Metaphors in an Art Historical Context

The phenomenon of reflection recurs as a leitmotif throughout the body of Richter’s work; it also constitutes a central aspect of the piece ”Acht Grau” (”Eight Grey”). A comparative look at art history clarifies the tradition Richter’s mirror metaphors exist within.

At first, the viewer doesn’t recognize his own reflection when observing Eight Grey. Because the work oscillates between a monochrome grey glass surface and a mirror, his reflected image only becomes discernible at second glance. The mirror itself is entirely passive; it merely reflects what occurs in front of it, calling upon the viewer to take an active part. A dynamic interplay arises between his fleeting appearance and disappearance. It is no longer a question of contemplation here, of losing oneself in the image that is so characteristic for the reception of modern art, but rather a direct confrontation with one’s own reflection. Richter leaves it up to the viewer to determine the meaning that arises in the relationship to his own likeness. Yet not only the viewer is mirrored in the glass surfaces, but also the space itself and the occurrences outside on the street that enter the museum space through the window.

The fleeting images in the mirrors are reminiscent of the snapshots that served Richter as sketches for his figurative paintings. Photography and the mirror represent two methods by which a moment can be arrested. Whereas photography, however, actually conserves the moment, the mirror retains none of its images. The mirror, moreover, is an attribute of vanitas in painting: while gazing into the mirror, we arrive at the realization that none of our images remain stored within it. The nature of the reflection is transitory. It appears and disappears, reminding us of our own ephemerality.

In the exhibition space, a dialogue arises between the large-scale surfaces of the grey mirrors and the actual windows: not only because the windows themselves become reflective after dark, but also because the eight grey surfaces seem like windows in that they depict something existing outside their frame. Richter’s piece from 1967, 4 Sheets of Glass, can be cited here as a predecessor for Eight Grey.

Gerhard Richter: Skizze für die Kippung der ACHT GRAU, 2002
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Four sheets of glass in iron frames can be tilted, guiding the viewer’s gaze as though he were looking through a window into a space situated somewhere behind. The frame directs the gaze, and everything that exists within it becomes the fleeting content of the work. In an architectural sense, the window is a membrane that divides the interior from the exterior. This separation of inside and outside is crucial to the phenomenon of reflection, as well, while the mirror offers the additional possibility of seeing oneself from the outside, as one is seen by other people. The confrontation with one’s own reflection in the mirror has something extremely direct about it in that it hides nothing, spares nothing. In fairy tales, the mirror often serves as an instrument for establishing truth. Our reflections are a part of us, just as our shadows are. When a protagonist loses his mirror reflection, it often foretells a tragic end.

Gerhard Richter: Studie für "4 Glasscheiben", 1965
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Gerhard Richter: Studie für "4 Glasscheiben", 1966
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

In art history, the motif of the mirror appears again and again. Not least, it allowed the painter to demonstrate his virtuosity. If the reflection turned out to be absolutely identical to the subject, then the artist’s skill was a proven fact. In countless paintings, the mirror represents something outside the picture. In Richter’s work, as well, objects existing beyond the borders of the frame are reflected.

Jan van Eyck:
"Die Arnolfini Hochzeit -
Hochzeitsbild des Giovanni Arnolfini
und seiner Frau Giovanna Cenami",
1434, oil on wood

Jan van Eyck:
"Die Arnolfini Hochzeit" - Detail

The first painting that demonstrates the mirror as a phenomenon of spacial extension is Jan van Eyck’s Wedding Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini from 1434. Here, the mirror is situated centrally in the painting, directly above the clasped hands of the wedding couple, who are standing in a room furnished in bourgeois style. The mirror has a lightly curved, convex form that not only reflects the objects in the room, but things happening beyond the picture’s frame, as well. A gaze into the round mirror shows a clear view of the couple’s back as well as two witnesses standing in an open doorframe. The crucial difference here is that the mirror is depicting something that has to be occurring where the viewer is standing. The viewer assumes the position of witness, becoming integrated in a peculiar way into the picture’s story. The round mirror dissolves the separation between pictorial space and viewer’s space, producing a continuous whole. This connection finds its correspondence in the represented scene of betrothal.

Diego Velazquez: "Las Meninas",
1656, oil on canvas

Another famous painting that lends the mirror special meaning is Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez from the year 1656. The infanta Margarita is at the center of the picture, surrounded by two court ladies and a female dwarf. Directly above the infanta’s head, on the back wall of the room, is a mirror hanging to the left of an open door, surrounded by dark paintings. Here, too, the mirror is placed at the center of the picture. Velázquez himself is standing on the left side of the painting, posing as the artist at his canvas, whose painted surface is facing away from the viewer. Opinions vary as to what the artist is painting or whether it’s really a mirror that’s hanging on the back wall, or another painting. If, however, it is indeed a mirror, then it’s reflecting two figures standing outside the picture’s borders. The pair are King Philip V. and his wife Marianne, at whose court Velázquez was engaged as court painter. Yet where exactly are they situated? Are they standing in front of the picture? Are they in the process of being painted by Velázquez, perhaps? If the royal couple is standing in front of the mirror, then they must be standing where the viewer is. Hence, the viewer takes on the role of the motif which the eyes of the artist, the infanta, and the remaining figures are all focussed on. An interplay between observation and ”being observed” is initiated. The painting’s viewer is simultaneously being viewed, and thus becomes conscious of his own act of observation. This perceptual phenomenon can be extended to Eight Grey. Here, too, the visitor is both image motif and viewer.

The surrealist painting by René Magritte from 1937, The Forbidden Reproduction, is unsettling because the mirror doesn’t show what it should. Instead of a frontal view, it duplicates the back of the man standing in front of the viewer. It seems as though the man were looking at himself as though at a stranger. The viewer’s gaze is doubled, as it were, thus becoming an element of the painting. The viewer once again plays a central role: he becomes the trigger of this strange fissure in the image. As in Eight Grey, we are looking at someone and are made aware that we are looking.

The works by Magritte, van Eyck, and Velázquez are painted. For this reason, while the viewer can imagine himself inside the paintings, he cannot, however, see himself directly in them. In Richter’s case, eight monochrome grey glass surfaces replace the painting, reflecting both the viewer and the space surrounding him, literally making him an object of the image. Every mirror image is unique; it appears and disappears again immediately afterwards. In this way, an unlimited number of reflected situations arise in the course of the day, each one of which is entirely unique and unrepeatable. The only question is whether what we’re seeing is real or mere appearance.

As the other artists have done, Richter, in using painted or real mirrors, addresses the fundamental conditions of our perception. In looking, we become aware that we are looking. But what do we actually see?

Melanie Franke
Translation: Andrea Scrima