Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden on 9th February 1932, the first child of Horst and Hildegard Richter. A daughter, Gisela, followed four years later. They were in many respects an average middle-class family: Horst worked as a teacher at a secondary school in Dresden and Hildegard was a bookseller who liked to play the piano.1 In an interview with Robert Storr, Richter described his early family life as 'simple, orderly, structured – mother playing the piano and father earning money.'2
In 1935, Horst accepted a teaching position at a school in Reichenau, a town which today is known as Bogatynia in Poland, at the time located in the German province Saxony. Settling in Reichenau was a drastic change for the family, which was accustomed to the vivid cultural life of the larger Dresden.3 Yet, it was also a move which would keep the family largely safe from the coming war. In the late 1930s Horst was conscripted into the German army, captured by Allied forces and detained as a prisoner of war until Germany's defeat. In 1946, he was released and returned to his family, who had again relocated, this time to Waltersdorf, a village on the Czech border.
The post-war years caused difficulties for the Richter family, as for many others. Horst’s return was not that of a war-hero. Commenting on this period in later life, Richter reflected: '[Horst] shared most father's fate at the time [...] nobody wanted them.'4 In an interview from 2004, he added: '[we] were so alienated that we didn't know how to deal with each other.'5 Horst’s former membership of the National Socialist Party, which all teachers had been obliged to join under the Nazi regime, made it difficult for him to return to teaching. He eventually ended up working in a textile mill in nearby in Zittau, before finding a post as an administrator of a distance learning programme for an educational institution in Dresden.6
Richter has remarked on his early years with a mixture of fondness and frustration, sadness and excitement. He reminisced about the house in which he was born, on Grossenhainer Strasse in Dresden: '[it] was not far from the original Circus Sarrasani building, where – as a young boy – I could see the elephant stalls through the cellar windows. I remember my great-grandmother's sewing box, made of armadillo skin, and a man falling from a ladder – something that, according to my parents, only I had seen.'7 Not much is documented about Richter's time in Reichenau, but he has talked about his experiences of Waltersdorf: 'we had moved to a new village, and automatically I was an outsider. I couldn't speak the dialect and so on.'8 In 1942, because he turned 10 years old, Richter was required to join the ‘Pimpfen’, a mandatory organisation for children that prepared them for the Hitler Youth. Later, Richter attended grammar school in Zittau but eventually dropped out. He has been described as 'a highly gifted child but notoriously bad in school,'9 with Dietmar Elger noting that 'he even got poor grades in drawing.'10 He ended up attending a vocational school instead, studying stenography, bookkeeping, and Russian.
While too young to be drafted into the German army during the Second World War, the war nonetheless had a deep impact on Richter. The family experienced economic hardship and personal loss: Hildegard's brothers, Rudi and Alfred, and sister, Marianne, all died as a consequence of the war. 'It was sad when my mother's brothers fell in battle. First the one, then the other. I'll never forget how the women screamed,'11 Richter recalls. Marianne, who suffered from mental health problems, was starved to death in a psychiatric clinic.12
Even though Waltersdorf was spared the extensive bombing that nearby Dresden was exposed to, it was not sheltered. Speaking to Jan-Thorn Prikker, Richter has said: 'the retreating German soldiers, the convoys, the low-flying Russian planes shooting at refugees, the trenches, the weapons lying around everywhere, artillery, broken down cars. Then the invasion of the Russians [...] ransacking, rapes, a huge camp where us kids sometimes got barley soup.'13 As a child, the military had fascinated Richter: 'When the soldiers came through the village, I went up to them and wanted to join them.'14 He explained to Storr: 'when you're twelve years old you're too little to understand all that ideological hocus- pocus.'15 Richter remembers playing in the woods and trenches with his friends, shooting with forgotten rifles which they found lying around: 'I thought it was great. [...] I was fascinated, like all kids.'16 The bombings of Dresden made an enduring impression on Richter: 'in the night, everyone came out onto the street of our village 100 kilometres away. Dresden was being bombed, 'now, at this moment!'17
Following the Potsdam agreement at the end of the war, the area in which Richter lived fell under Soviet control. The Second World War profoundly changed the face of the country that Richter had been born into, which had a lasting effect on Richter's education and later artistic practice.
1 Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter, A Life in Painting, (translated by Elizabeth M. Solaro) University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2009, p.4.
2 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, conducted with the assistance of Catharina Manchanda, April 21-23, 2001. Cited in Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter, Forty Years of Painting, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p.19. Elger adds: 'the artist recalls growing up an ordinary child in an ordinary household struggling to cope with the extraordinary pressures of National Socialism'. Elger, A Life in Painting, p.4.
3 Elger describes Reichenau as 'a drab locale steeped in heavy industry', A Life in Painting, p.5.
4 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr. Cited in Forty Years of Painting, p.19.
5 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, Thames & Hudson, London, p.465.
6 Elger, A Life in Painting, footnote 6, p.358.
7 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.466.
8 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.375.
9 Jürgen Harten [ed.], Gerhard Richter Bilder Paintings 1962-1985, p.9.
10 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.7.
11 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, pp.466-467. 12 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.6.
13 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.466.
14 Interview with Anna Tilroe, 1987. Ibid., p.197.
15 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.19.
16 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.466.
17 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr. Cited in Forty Years of Painting, p.19.