Swan 2, 1989, oil on canvas, and details. Gerhard Richter, born 1932, Germany.
One of three paintings on the theme of a Swan: this one an 125th anniversary gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2003 by Keith L. and Katharine Sachs.
The artist was born in East Germany when it was under Nazi control. It passed, of course, to communist control in 1945. He moved to West Germany in 1961 when he was already approaching 30 years. These are just words on this screen. But the life in this life may be beyond the imagination of those of us who have always been Westerners. The Thousand Year Reich; then Communist hegemony. Then ‘the West’ and its beguiling freedoms.
The date of Swan 2 is 1989: the Berlin wall was permanently breached and Soviet rule began to come to an end.
Gerhard Richter’s ‘Stag’, 1963, oil on canvas. In private collection. The artist had wanted to be a forester when he was young. Here a stag between two worlds not so dissimilar to each other. Apparently.
The artist is, of course, famous for the variety of his styles and for his coyness on the matter of what any of his art ‘means’.
Swan 2 is very dense. It is at the same time contained and overflowing because you are looking at water. It is disciplined and also lush.
It is rich: yellow, blue and green appear on the edges and corners of the painting as if reminders of other worlds beyond. The pink and white are the sun at any time of day you would like to imagine As to the shiny black and white: as you approach you look for your reflection and don’t find it. What you find are many unique patterns not repeated in this painting.
Thin washes of paint. In some places it seems that the topmost wash is peeling away. But not violently. Underneath appears another layer, apparently undamaged and with dribbles of other colours showing through.
You have, of course, no idea if the artist meant something particular. You wish you knew. Then you realize that it matters not.
Still, you would like to think that this is an allegory of the artist’s life or part of it: unique non-repeating patterns anchored in a dense core; layers which are not encrusted but simply lying over other layers and flaking away as time moves on; other worlds flourishing there on the margins and in the corners where the artist will one day be.
As to the swan: she has just moved rightwards into lit waters and is outside the picture frame. You can see this on the right-hand side of the painting: there are two tracks across the water, V-shaped. Where the V comes to a point, there is the swan swimming in the sunshine.
A black swan, perhaps.
Just the loveliest image.