There is a major retrospective exhibition of Gerhard Richter's work now showing at the Tate Modern gallery in London. Richter's artworks pose difficult questions and are stimulating, disturbing and beautiful. They also, I think, help us frame our modern experience in surprising ways.
There is a lot of hype about Richter and his art. Some critics regard him as the greatest living painter and his artworks sell for millions at auction. There is scant regard for historical context in the Tate's presentation. Richter himself says of his paintings, "I don't even like showing them any more. The press love them. Dreadful!" However, don't let this put you off.
Richter is one of a small group of exceptional German artists - which includes Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Günter Grass - who, against the odds, have created profoundly poignant works of art responding to the pain and guilt of fascism and war.
In post-war Germany there seemed to be plenty of reasons not to "indulge" in the arts at all. The country was devastated physically and spiritually. Dresden - Richter's birthplace - like so many other German cities, had been flattened by Allied bombing. Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher, had famously said that, after Auschwitz, writing poetry would be barbaric. By 1960 Germany was torn in half by Cold War rivalry. Moscow was colonising the East and Washington was dominating the West.
Richter, however, wanted to paint. In 1951, after training in stage and advertising painting, he studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts where he later became a master trainee, sponsored by the East German state to produce public murals. In 1961 he illicitly crossed the border into West Germany. He has lived and painted there ever since. This exhibition contains work from that period until now.
Richter's history is fundamental to his work which embodies the conflict and contradictions of his age. "I was always looking", he once said, "for a third way, in which Eastern realism and Western modernism would be resolved into one redeeming construct."
But there has been no redemption and his struggle for representation continues. He has used photography and abstraction, expressive and reproductive techniques, an emphasis on allusion and on the process and physicality of painting.
Even though there might seem at first to be a cool distance between him and the subjects and themes of his work, the best of his paintings hold you in their disquiet and become a testimony to his relentless questioning of dominant modes of expression.
Gerhard Richter: Panorama is at the Tate Modern until 8 January 2012