Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Gerhard Richter

Woman with Umbrella, 1964
Oil on Canvas 160 x 95cm
Hayward Gallery
14 October 2007

From the exhibition of The Painting of Modern Life this is one of the first images you encounter on entering and sets the scene perfectly for this contemporary exploration of Baudelaire’s ideas.

The title (Frau mit Schirm) is deliberately banal and seems to objectify what at first seems a strange painting compositionally. The right hand two thirds of the canvas are occupied with a blurry painting of a woman holding an umbrella in her left hand. She has brought her right hand to her mouth and could be stifling a yawn or stopping herself from crying out. The other third is a vertical stripe of cream down the left hand side, signalling perhaps that this is not so much a painting from a photograph, but a painting of a photograph.

However, rather than paint the photograph actual size as he has chosen to enlarge the image to life size, letting us stand back to contemplate the subject. The woman’s feet are cropped at the ankle, reinforcing the use of a photographic source. The image is blurred simulating either camera shake or perhaps the poor quality of the printed image of a photograph taken in the rain.

It seems to have an aura of sadness, but perhaps it is only once you know it is painted from a newspaper photograph of the grieving widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, the full weight of melancholy becomes apparent. Interesting that like Warhol, who must be a big influence, he has chosen to paint an image of the young widow taken sometime after the shooting (she wore the pink suit throughout the day despite it being covered in blood), rather than the president as he was killed. This certainly avoids being too controversial, but it also communicates the grief and evokes sympathy, rather than the disbelief and shock of the news footage. It also avoids the iconic look of the Warhol images, which trace the events surrounding the assassination and assumed the stature of history paintings.

Richter’s colour scheme, (which might be his own if the original is B&W – image isn’t in Atlas so I am unable to verify this) is a dark background with pale lemon yellows and greys with a few flecks of pink for the woman’s coat. Whilst this enhances the melancholic feeling of the image, the process is more about trying to remake a photograph rather than invest it with something new. The wet paint has either been dragged left to right across the image with a stiff bristle brush or perhaps a squeegee or repeatedly feathered with a soft brush. The surface is relatively smooth suggesting a fairly oil rich medium and has a certain slickness to it.

Although the painting has the look of the stills from the film of the presidential motorcade taken earlier in the day, the image is static and the emotion felt is different. Rather than the global loss of the president, we experience the personal grief of the widow. It recalls a moment in history that touched everybody at the time and I think, as a painting, its melancholy aura grows stronger with time as the shock value of using the image lessens.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Without any information about the historical background of this painting (a very good analysis considering some aspects) I had thought: a normal woman, yes, often we need an umbrella in our rainland - but from the first moment on I knew: A terrible situation has just happened here- and the woman wants to cry or is suppressing her cry- while looking at her eyes I see her being shocked by the situation she is just experiencing, perhaps a car accident or a shooting (our last memories in Germany!)..., she could shut her eyes, but she tries to shut her mouth.
    Another painting comes up in my mind: Munch, The cry- but what a difference!- there an expressionistic, loud cry with open mouth, open eyes, a cry which captures/fill sout the whole environment, the cosmos, the whole world- here a silent cry, suüppressed, restraint! A reference to the the ways how we deal with such terrible situations/events which should stop the usual- familiar course of our world for some time- but mostly it is only a short cry, outcry, soon suppressed- and all the things are going on as before- in this way the painting could have a symbolic meaning surpassing the historical situation of the Kennedy- erea then I well remember because Kennedy was a very important politician for us young people ("Ich bin ein Berliner"...) like Obama today!

  2. An ionteresting response, especially as you didn't know the subject when you saw the image. A dignified image I think that records the circumstance of the grief, unlike the Warhol Jackie's that just trade on her celebrity and the sensation of the news. Also interesting to compare with Munch - a totally different cry as you say, but then with the Munch I always felt it was the landscape screaming not the figure, which is why he is shielding his ears.

    PS I will also try and find a better image ;o)

  3. Considering Munch's painting: yes, you are right as Munch himself told- but I could imagine that the figure is screaming, too!
    Another famous scream/cry: Laokoon-statue- with interpretations by Winckelmann and Lessing (expression of suffering in Fine/Plastic Arts, not in literature)

    A text from Munch's diary in 1892 relates to The Scream:

    I was walking along a path with two friends
    the sun was setting
    I felt a breath of melancholy
    Suddenly the sky turned blood-red
    I stopped and leant against the railing,
    deathly tired
    looking out across flaming clouds that hung
    like - blood and a sword over the
    deep blue fjord and town
    My friends walked on -
    I stood there trembling with anxiety
    And I felt a great, infinite scream pass
    through nature.