Just as the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass asks, ‘What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?’ so the question might arise, ‘What is the use of art without meaning?’
Should a person enter the room at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in which the work of Gerhard Richter is currently on display, and should that person have read no advance publicity about the Richter/Pärt show of which it is a part, they would find themselves confronted by four large abstract paintings in which thick layers of paint have been squeegeed across the surface – scorched black on white, smears of bloody red, and patches of disintegrating green. They might then ask, ‘What does this mean?’
But, where does meaning lie in a painting? If the story of Richter’s work wasn’t already familiar – or if we didn’t read the wall label and learn that Richter has named this work Birkenau, surely our reaction to this artwork would be different?
But Richter has named the work, it is labelled, and so in that knowledge we can allude meaning. We also know that beneath the thickly-smeared layers of paint on the four canvases that form Richter’s artwork – though now completely obscured – are four photographs taken by a prisoner at the Birkenau Concentration Camp in August 1944. Richter had already been studying the pictures for many years before he decided to use them as the basis for new paintings in 2014.
In the end, Richter overpainted the hastily-shot images of unimaginable horror, taking an abstract approach to the subject. Studying the four frames of Birkenau with their surfaces of scratched and smeared paint, brought to mind Adorno’s words, ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ because there is something decidedly ugly and brutal about this ‘slurry of blacks and whites, greens and reds’ (Adrian Searle in his review for the Guardian).
But that is not all there is to the experience of Richter/Pärt. The show brings together Gerhard Richter – who was born in Dresden in 1932, grew up under National Socialism, then lived under East German Communism for 16 years before moving to West Germany in 1961 – with Arvo Pärt, the Estonian also profoundly affected by the Second World War and its aftermath, his close relatives deported from Estonia to Siberia on Stalin’s command, who as a young composer endured a prolonged struggle with Soviet officials before he was allowed to emigrate to West Germany with his family in 1980.
Both men have made works inspired by and dedicated to the
other. Both Richter’s Birkenau and Double Grey, exhibited on the wall facing, are dedicated to Pärt. The latter consists of four diptychs, each enamelled with a different tone of grey on glass that reflects the room beyond and the onlookers in it. This led Adrian Searle, writing in the Guardian, to interpret the work as being about reflection and response:
The essence of the collaboration between German painter Gerhard Richter and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt rests in our grappling between the differences between what we hear and what we see, what we are told and what we experience with our senses, what is mediated and what hits us directly.
The idea of bringing together painter and composer emerged from a conversation on a transatlantic flight between the show’s co-curators, Alex Poots and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The recently-refurbished Whitworth gallery promised to provide the perfect environment in which to show Richter’s paintings and stage a piece of music dedicated by Pärt to Richter.
Over the course of each day of the show, a choir enters this gallery and sings Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima, a composition whose title recalls three Portuguese shepherd children who, in 1917, had visions of the Virgin Mary in which she revealed three prophecies, including one predicting the Second World War. Pärt has taken the words for his composition from Psalm 8: ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength’.
I’m standing in front of the paintings when suddenly the guy in jeans and red T-shirt next to me opens his mouth and sings, ‘Hallelujah. Hallelujah.’ Pärt’s work lasts just three minutes, and consists of four alleluias and that line from Psalm 8. It is not a broken hallelujah, but a thing of simple beauty – composed in response to a terrible prophecy of the war to come which ended in the human smear of Auschwitz.
On the day that I was there, the singing was by Vox Clamantis, an Estonian choir that has worked with Arvo Pärt in the past. The members of the choir had entered the gallery incognito, dressed casually and mingling with others in the gallery. After a short pause, the music is repeated – several times in any one hour – with members of the choir changing position so that the music – pure and beautiful – is subtly different each time.
Before Richter’s work whose meaning references the horror of genocide, a composition of simple beauty is given voice by the man standing beside me, the woman across the room and the others standing with us in this crowd. They open their mouths and sing for us: Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!