Gerhard Richter, Annunciation after Titian, oil on linen, 1973.
Gerhard Richter has recently been the subject of a massive retrospective at the Tate Modern. His work is both bafflingly diverse and unnervingly intimate. Even if you dislike, or struggle, with his later squeegee abstractions you might relish his photo-realism. In particular his paintings of various family members are quite affecting. However, in this post I want to consider ‘The Annunciation after Titian’ (1973); a series of works inspired by the great Venetian artist. Originally, according to Richter, he replicated the painting simply because he wanted to have a copy in his house. The image above is the first of five versions of the painting that Richter reworked, each becoming something in itself. The painting below is one of the later compositions.
Titian’s Annunciation (circa 1559-64) is both brightly coloured and clearly formed. Richter’s imitation, despite using a similar palette, seems more muted and dull, and the characters are less coherent. Richter’s piece is a failed effort: he seems to lose some of the force of the original and does not capture the immediacy of Titian’s scene. Yet, Richter exploits this initial ‘failure’ by producing other iterations which work to capture the essential beauty of the original. With these other compositions Richter is pushing the boundaries of Titian’s work; he is exploring the limits of faithful reproduction. Can Richter’s other abstracted versions be considered reproductions or copies in any formal sense, or are they something wholly other to the original? Can these other iterations of the Annunciation recontextualise that first expression?
At times I see the Annunciation less like Titian and more like Richter. The event possesses a particular beauty even if I am less certain about the details of the encounter. Yet, within this ambiguity there is a sense in which we (Titian, Richter and I) are still speaking about the same creation, the same moment and the same experience. Richter, rather than separating out those who favour Titian, is trying to explore the similarities between these various paradigms. Through his eyes I am able to visualise what another might see and I can even appreciate some of the aesthetic pleasure they might gain from their vantage point. Perhaps my own sensibilities and dispositions prefer a different piece but Richter invites me to engage, rather than ignore, this other perspective.
My own religious response to Richter’s work is neither intellectually profound or original; instead this series has reinforced visually something that it all too easy for me to forget. Richter reminds me that there is, experientially and religiously, great diversity within Mormonism and that there is value in see through the eyes of another; that there is value in drawing on our different ‘ways of seeing’ in order to forge a form of fellowship around the shared beauty of our religion.
1. This post would have been too large if I included every iteration of Richter’s work but the others are available online. Click through to see each version. I have attached one of the later versions below.