In the long arc of art history, we’ve become reluctantly accustomed to the devastating loss of cultural artifacts due to war and human misdeeds, natural disaster, and just plain unfortunate accidents. But what happens when the destruction is a conscious decision occurring at the hands of the creator himself?
Over the past several decades, Gerhard Richter, one of the most well-known and important German artists in the post WWII-era, has destroyed more than 60 of his completed works.
These were not newly finished pieces that failed to meet his vision or standards; in many cases, they were paintings that had appeared in exhibitions and shows—paintings that Der Spiegel estimates would now be worth around $655 million—before Richter eventually deemed them unworthy.
Richter was born in Dresden seven years before the start of the war. In 1943, a few years after his father was drafted into the army, his mother fled with the family to a smaller town in the countryside.
After Germany’s surrender, Richter struggled to find his place, failing out of school—including earning dismal marks in drawing—and jumping from job to job. While his apprenticeships as a sign and stage painter failed to hold his interest, they did help him to realize that his dream was to become a professional artist.
In 1951, for the first time since the war ended, Richter returned to the city of his birth to attend the Dresden Art Academy. “Everything had been destroyed. There were only piles of rubble to the left and right of what had been streets,” Dietmar Elger quotes Richter as saying in the book Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting.
Out of that rubble was born one of Europe’s greatest postwar artists. In the decades that followed, Richter built a career characterized by experimentation, rigorous practice, and high-minded exploration of the ideas guiding his work and the world around him. His style has ranged from photorealism to abstract and from somber grey pieces to colorful portraits and paintings.
In the early 1960s, after Richter escaped to West Germany ahead of the Berlin Wall’s construction, he began a series of photorealistic paintings in which he painted copies of black and white photographs onto large canvases using only a palette of grey. It was these canvases that took a major hit when he decided to cull his oeuvre in his 30s.
Among the lost was the painting Warship Destroyed by Torpedo, which featured a calm grey sea and sky punctuated by an explosive spray of water in the middle of the long, dark boat in the center of the canvas. The painting was featured in the artist’s first gallery exhibit in 1964.
There was also the 1962 painting of Hitler in grey and black that leans heavily towards the pop art styles Richter had been studying. Not only was it a foundational work in the early development of the artist, but it also was an historically important piece. Following the war, it became a taboo in Germany to address the events of the recent past; by painting Hitler, Richter refused to be silent and insisted on confronting the war and the dark stain that remained on the country.
These were just two of the more than 60 works that the artist condemned, telling Der Spiegel that “cutting up the paintings was always an act of liberation.” But it was also an effort to maintain tight control over the narrative of his career.
Richter’s destructive impulses did have one safety lever, so to speak. Before sending the works under his merciless box-cutter or into the flames, Richter took photos of most of the doomed pieces. These images have remained largely hidden away, unseen in his personal archive.
While it is clear that the artist’s actions were deliberate, he wasn’t wholly without regret. "Sometimes, when I see one of the photos, I think to myself: That's too bad; you could have let this one or that one survive,” Richter told Der Spiegel.
This wasn’t the first time Richter had waged war on his own work. The artist told The New York Times Magazine that, after arriving in West Germany at the beginning of the 60s and starting a new art school, he furiously created over the next year.
“So I started to paint like crazy, from figurative to abstract. Then after a year, I put it all on a bonfire in the courtyard of the academy. I suppose there was some ritual involved, but I didn't tell anyone before I did it, so it wasn't public,” Richter said.
It also wouldn’t be the last time. Richter has continued to make edits to his body of work since his early bouts of extreme self-criticism. A quick search of his official website-cum-catalogue raisonné turns up 89 works listed as “destroyed.” While some are early photorealistic paintings, many of these are the colorful abstract pieces he turned to in the 1970s and has continued to make ever since, toggling between the two styles.
Richter is hardly the first artist who has wiped out pieces of his own canon. He joins a long history of artists who haven’t been afraid to destroy where they saw fit, including Claude Monet, Robert Rauschenberg, John Baldessari, Jasper Johns, and Robert Frank. And, ultimately, that is their right to choose.
“What has been lost to art history through the destruction of [Monet’s] “Water Lilies” and of any number of works by any number of major figures is, of course, incalculable. Still, curators and scholars will be the first defend an artist’s right to self-edit.” Ann Landi wrote in Art News.
But one also can’t help but wonder what has been lost with the deaths of these works.
One of the most famous paintings to memorialize the September 11 terrorist attacks is Richter’s small, abstract canvas titled simply, September. While this canvas is now owned by MoMA and has been reproduced in countless publications and prints, the story has it that this painting was at one point destined for the flames. Either because of the artist’s change of heart or an investment that stayed his hand, September managed to escape.
The loss of the piece would have left a large gap, whether we had known of it or not. As Blake Gopnik points out in a 2011 piece in Newsweek, “When the world’s greatest living painter can’t do justice to his theme, can only render it as blurred and almost unseeable, you get a sense of its enormity. The impossibility of condensing such a subject into art, or into any final summation, is the true, great subject of September.”
If we get so much out of this one, small work, what are we missing in the pieces that weren’t so lucky? What secrets would they whisper about the artist’s work and what insights would they give us about our own lives and world? We will never know.