Gerhard Richter

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.

jackie kennedy motorcade.jpg

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