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Gerhard Richter, Betty

Salman Khan and Steven Zucker discuss Gerhard Richter's Betty, 1988, oil on canvas, 102 x 72 cm. (Saint Louis Art Museum). Created by Steven Zucker and Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Voiceover: We're looking at a German artist, Gerhard Richter's painting "Betty". Voiceover: This is a painting? Voiceover: Yeah, this is not a photograph. Voiceover: It was done by a human being? Voiceover: (laughs) Yes, a living contemporary artist. Voiceover: This is interesting; I know we've talked about the camera coming along in the mid-19th century, and artists started to reflect on what they are and what their role is, and now this guy shows up and makes a completely photo-real- Voiceover: Right, we've been dealing with all these questions about what it means to make legitimate art, and the death of painting, and art having transcended the need to be representative, and then Richter comes along Well, he begins, actually, as a pop artist and adopts a whole series of abstract styles, but also these intensely naturalistic renderings. Voiceover: Just trying to put my art historian hat here, or maybe my art critic hat, because this is fairly recent. My reactions are I'm amazed by the technique required to produce something so real, but after all of what we've talked about, it's just cool painting; it doesn't seem to be pivotal in the history of art, but tell me otherwise. Voiceover: I actually have a lot of respect for what Richter has done, but again, you can't take the single image in isolation; but, maybe we can begin with the single image. We have this intensely naturalistic rending, that by the way, does come from a photopraph, but Betty is facing away from us, so we don't see her. We want to see her, and he's given us the promise of seeing her with this really hyper, specific, naturalistic rendering, and yet, then there's also this refusal. She's not gonna let us see her face. Voiceover: But, why couldn't have this just been a photograph? Voiceover: I think that's a really interesting issue. Painting is about, in the 20th century and in the 21st century to some extent, it is about an evolution of styles. Some very few artists, like Picasso, will work in multiple styles simultaneously; but, Richter takes that on as a task, and he works in a kind of pure abstraction and a hyper-naturalism at the same moment, as well as other kinds of historical styles, in a sense, leveling them, destroying this notion that one evolves from the next, that one responds to the next. That style, he begins to suggest, is actually a function in the late 20th century of the market. It's almost a kind of artistic branding. Voiceover: Everything we've been talking about is how painters have pushed thinking forward, or at least changed thinking, and that's why it was interesting, and what I think I'm hearing here is Gerhard Richter is saying, "I'm gonna break free of that cycle "of painters continuing trying to just push the style of the time." Voiceover: Do we live in a moment? A kind of post-historical moment when we have access to all of these different histories, and what does it mean to, in the sense, own all of those simultaneously? Voiceover: At least on the paint on canvas, every permutation has been done. He's saying two things: Why pretend like you're doing a new permutation, but at the same time, that's a little sad. Voiceover: Well, I think that's right. Is that power that we have a kind of loss, in fact? Voiceover: I'm starting to buy what you all were saying, it's all about context, because outside of context it's like, "Wow! Someone painted that? That's really cool." Voiceover: Gerhard Richter grew up outside of Dresden, and he was a child when Dresden was firebombed by the Allies during the second World War, so as you know, that city was almost completely destroyed; he grew up, however, not in a Nazi Germany, then, but in an East Germany, a culture that is moving from a visual ideology that looks to a heroic classicism as the Nazis had, to of Soviet realism. He went to art school, and there was indoctrination, the state telling him, as an artist, this was his responsibility to move the state forward with a kind of naturalistic rendering. He moved to the West just before the Berlin wall was finished, and there he entered into a very different visual culture, one that was all about advertising. But that was another kind of indoctrination, he felt, advertising visual culture that now was speaking to capitalist culture, so he moved from Nazi visual ideology, to Soviet visual ideology, to capitalist visual ideology, and he didn't want to own any of it. He wanted to transcend it. How does style, now in our world, speak to ideologies, speak to vested interests, and was it important to sort of distance yourself from that, and in a sense, disempower the ideologies of style? Voiceover: Yeah, I think I'll have to think about this a little bit. Voiceover: I think that Richter has succeeded if he has given you the opportunity to really think that through, and to question how much we are products of our historical ideology? Voiceover: Fascinating. (lighthearted music)