Daniel Richter in five works

Lonely Old Slogans brings together paintings by Daniel Richter from the 1990s through to 2015. Throughout his career, a key preoccupation for Richter is how painting can respond to the social and political reality of the time. This has led to radical formal and aesthetic shifts across his work, from dense, hyper-saturated abstract compositions to narrative figuration and back again. The diverse styles and points of reference in his work are celebrated in his first UK exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. We look here at five key works from the exhibition.

  1. Europa — immer Ärger mit dem Sogenannten (Europe — Always in Trouble with the So-called), 1999
Daniel Richter, Europa — immer Ärger mit dem Sogenannten (Europe — Always in Trouble with the So-called), 1999. Oil, lacquer on canvas, 220 x 180 cm. Courtesy of the Federal Republic of Germany — Collection of Contemporary Art

In the late 1980s Richter was designing posters and record sleeves for punk bands, but in 1992, in the upheaval following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he switched to fine art, undertaking four years of studies in Hamburg. He soon swapped the left-wing punk scene for the solitude of the studio, and began creating complex abstract compositions comprised of chaotic forms and colours approaching the psychedelic. Richter’s paintings from the late 1990s such as Europa test how much a painting can hold: how much he can stretch form, colour and composition.

2. Tuanus, 2000

Daniel Richter, Tuanus, 2000. Oil on canvas, 252 x 368 cm. Courtesy of Deichtorhallen Hamburg / Falckenberg Collection

Richter is arguably best-known for his large-format figurative paintings from the early 2000s that address socio-political events. Considered in relation to the genre of ‘new history painting’, Tuanus saw a dramatic shift from previous works in abstraction such as Europa — just a year before — towards the narrative, the theatrical and the figurative. The composition is drawn from an image Richter found in a radical magazine depicting drug addicts being searched and patted down in a park in Frankfurt where bankers would have lunch. Richter takes the image and overlays it with a bright colour palette; he employs distinct formal techniques to detach the work from its original context.

3. A Flower in Flames, 2012

Daniel Richter, A Flower in Flames, 2012. Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm. Private Collection

A Flower in Flames sees Richter move away from the chaotic urban Western landscapes of works such as Tuanus, turning to Romantic landscapes punctuated with lonely heroic figures. This painting makes reference to the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818). In Richter’s painting, the isolated figure wears a turban and clutches a rifle. Richter inflects the ‘Romantic’ reference to David Friedrich with a comment on the romanticised, perhaps exoticised Western view of the Middle East prior to 9/11.

4. Francis, der Fröhliche (Francis, the Cheerful), 2015

Daniel Richter, Francis, der Fröhliche (Francis, the Cheerful), 2015. Oil on canvas, 200 x 170 cm. Private Collection, Lütjenburg

Following a brief hiatus from painting, Richter’s newest series of paintings see him do away with the paintbrush completely: instead, he uses a palette knife to slice layers of paint onto the canvas, lending a new sense of movement and immediacy to his work. As with A Flower in Flames, Richter refers to the history of painting. The title of the painting alludes to Francis Bacon, and its composition — contorted limbs and an anguished face — similarly nods to Bacon’s formal techniques. As with works such as Tuanus, Richter works from a source material, this time from pornographic images culled from the internet. Across this series, lines and patches of colour reveal body-like shapes: figures romp around on a flat picture plane, their luridly coloured limbs twisted together.

5. Tarifa, 2001

Daniel Richter, Tarifa, 2001. Oil on canvas, 350 x 280 cm,. Collection Helen and Ken Rowe, London

Tarifa is an example of Richter’s work finding new interpretations over time. As with Tuanus, Richter takes an image — in this case five people on a raft — and his painterly techniques distance the work from a specific referent. Here, lurid neon colours overlay the scene with a paranoid view, as if seen through a thermal imaging camera. Painted 16 years ago, Tarifa feels just as shocking and relevant today as when it was originally created: the subject matter of the work reminds us today of newspaper photographs of the migrant crisis in Lampedusa in 2016. Richter creates images onto which we project contemporary contexts, ensuring his paintings constantly feel timely.


Daniel Richter’s exhibition Lonely Old Slogans continues at Camden Arts Centre until Sunday 17 September.