The Mystery of the Missing Material Descriptions at Gerhard Richter’s Exhibition

Gerhard Richter @ Kinský Palace and Convents of St. Agnes of Bohemia till September 3

The National Gallery in Prague has prepared a retrospective exhibition of Gerhard Richter, one of the most significant artists today. Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1986) became the world’s second most expensive piece of art by a living artist, when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s for 942 million Czech crowns. The exhibition presents his almost sixty-year long career through a chronological selection of eighty-three works, which were chosen by Richter in cooperation with the chief curator and the director of the National Gallery Jiří Fajt. The only crucial problem of this exhibition, however, is that it includes five ‘copies’ and tries to hide this fact by concealing the descriptions of materials used in the presented works.

At the press conference, Jiří Fajt promised that “visitors can see [Richter’s] iconic works, ranging from photo-realistic paintings to expressive and geometric abstract compositions.” And truly, visitors can see many of his greatest original works. The National Gallery’s website post of Gerhard Richter’s exhibition entices us with photos of Ema (1966) and Mr. Heyde (1965) with captions stating that they are the original ‘oil on canvas.’ However, the aforementioned two along with Betty (1988), 48 Portraits (1972), and September (2005) are in fact so-called “editions,” prints of the originals made and authorized by Richter himself.

Richter has been making these editions already since the sixties and they have become an important part of his creative output. He enjoys experimenting with printing styles and materials, and he values them as much as the originals, thereby also shifting the border of the relationship between the original and the reproduction. Richter once added on this matter: “Sometimes I feel that I should not call myself a painter but a producer of images. I’m more interested in images than in painting.”

Some smaller galleries even organize exhibitions composed solely of Richter’s editions, for example, the Museum Folkwang in Essen runs their “Gerhard Richter: The Editions” concurrently with the exhibition in the National Gallery in Prague. Of course, sometimes the original paintings are too fragile or controversial, making it too dangerous to lend them to another institution. This is also the case of Ema (1966), which was, due to its vulnerability, a victim of a knife-stabbing. The Ludwig Museum in Köln, which owns this controversial piece along with 48 Portraits (1972), decided to send only the small painting Betty (1977) to Prague. There is, hence, no shame in exhibiting Richter’s editions, but it is questionable to mislead the public about this, or not be clear enough about it.

The missing descriptions of used materials for all of the works on display in the National Gallery’s exhibition poses a problem for visitors’ ability to fully comprehend the works, and it is especially necessary since many of Richter’s works have a photo-realistic quality. If the National Gallery had included this information in the adjacent annotations, visitors wouldn’t have to grope in the dark.

Richter’s works which are presented only as editions have inconspicuously only an “ED.” inscribed before their date, and the abbreviation is easily overlooked. As well, visitors are not informed about what editions are, nor why they are in this exhibition. The National Gallery should have included this in the exhibition’s catalogue. The catalogue, at least, supplements the missing material descriptions, but once again it pretends to be exhibiting Ema and others as “oil on canvas,” stating only in very tiny lettering, that they are exhibited as editions.

The National Gallery has posted on their web portal, for the press, a file with descriptions of a few paintings, where they explicitly admit that Ema (1966), Betty (1988), and September (2005) are exhibited only as editions (1992, 2016 and 2009). However, they don’t include the edition of Mr. Heyde, which is thus falsely presented as the original from 1965. They have also made Richter (born 1932 in Dresden) a prophet, since they state that the original September (his painting depicting 9/11) was created in 1995. 48 Portraits (1972) are also editions made in 1998, but this is not indicated at the exhibition nor is it mentioned in the file.

The National Gallery in Prague is a state institution, which is supposed to have the highest level of art expertise in the Czech Republic, one from which the public can learn from. However, if the National Gallery continues to mislead or misinform the public, as it does in Richter’s exhibition, it could highly damage its credibility.

Gerhard Richter
Kinský Palace and Convents of St. Agnes of Bohemia, National Gallery in Prague
26th April – 3rd September 2017
Tue-Sun: 10 am – 6 pm

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