Gerhard Richter’s renowned Ema, 50 years on

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Christoph Driessen, dpa

Gerhard Richter thinks it’s stupid when he’s dubbed the “Picasso of the 21st century,” as the British daily The Guardian did not too long ago.

It’s equally stupid, the 84-year-old painter says, when what is probably his most famous painting, Ema, is called the “Mona Lisa of Cologne.”

Today, 50 years after “Ema – Nude on a Staircase” was painted in May 1966, Richter’s enigmatic and seductive lady is still causing a stir.

The painting in the Museum Ludwig in the German city of Cologne is now behind a protective plate of thick glass, ever since a man back in 1981 stabbed it with a sharp object, creating a 20-centimetre slash in the life-sized work.

What many people don’t realize is that the tall, shapely nude was Richter’s own wife, Marianne Eufinger, nicknamed Ema. She was two months pregnant at the time.

A fashion designer, she and Richter married in 1957 in Dresden in then communist East Germany. Four years later they went over to West Germany, with Richter beginning his studies at the Duesseldorf Art Academy. The couple divorced in 1982.

A man of cool reserve, Richter rarely painted portraits as intimate as Ema.

Yet while the figure in the painting appears to be striding directly towards the observer, she is also at the same time somewhat hidden behind a protective veil.

This was in fact Richter’s technique of wiping, using a dry brush to sweep across the still-wet original paint.

This slightly blurred effect, like a photograph out of focus, is what gives Ema her enigmatic, mysterious aura. The viewer approaches her, but she remains somehow out of reach.

In fact, the painting is a copy of a photograph that Richter made of his wife-as-model, and it was the first time ever that he had painted a work from a photograph.

This photographic character also worked against the painting’s initial reception. One museum at the time refused to show it, saying the museum displayed paintings, not photographs.

Richter is matter-of-fact about this painting. Asked by dpa if he sometimes goes to look at it, since after all he does live in Cologne where the Ludwig Museum is located, he answers, “yes, now and then” when he happens to visit the museum.

“But I do this with many paintings, not just this one.”

 

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