Richter's interest in art and culture began to take shape in the aftermath of the Second World War. He receives a simple plate camera as a Christmas gift from his mother. Werner Jungmichel, a camera shop owner in Waltersdorf teaches the young Richter how to develop photographs, a skill that will prove useful throughout his career.
As the eastern part of Germany became the GDR (German Democratic Republic), political uncertainty was accompanied by a shifting cultural status quo: 'It was very nasty, [but] when the Russians came to our village and expropriated the houses of the rich who had already left or were driven out, they made libraries for the people out of these houses. And that was fantastic.'14 Richter has recalled suddenly being able to access books that had been forbidden under Nazi rule: 'Cesare Lombroso's Genius and Madness, Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Feuchtwanger, all that middle-class literature. It was a wonderful, care-free time ... made it easy to forget the dark side of things.”15 Richter's mother encouraged her son's interest in literature, and, as Dietmar Elger has noted, it was this 'endless supply of illustrated books that prompted his own first drawings.'16 In an interview with Jeanne Anne Nugent, Richter described how he learnt about art 'from books and from the little folios with art prints that you used to get then – I remember Diego Velázquez, Albrecht Dürer, Lovis Corinth [...] It was simply a matter of what was around, what we saw and bought for ourselves.'17
Around the age of 15, Richter started to draw regularly. One of his early sketches, from 1946, was a nude figure copied from a book, which his parents reacted to with both pride and embarrassment. He also created landscapes and self-portraits, working mainly with watercolours. In a 2002 interview with Robert Storr, Richter describes a watercolour showing a group of people dancing, drawn in Waltersdorf: 'I was at a club, watching the others dance, and I was jealous and bitter and annoyed. So in the watercolour, all this anger is included, at 16. It was the same with the poems I was writing – very romantic, but bitter and nihilistic, like Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse.'18
In 1947, while still studying in Zittau, Richter started taking evening classes in painting. Little has been documented about these first painting lessons, although Elger notes that before completing the course, Richter felt he gained enough skill to match his instructors. Yet, on completing his bookkeeping studies in 1948, Richter was still not considering becoming a professional artist.
Instead, Richter left Waltersdorf for Zittau to become an apprentice, a common route into a career during the 1940s. He mulled over an array of professions, including forestry, dentistry and lithography, eventually finding employment with a company that produced banners for the GDR government. Here, his main task was cleaning old banners and readying them for being painted again. Storr recounts that during his five months in this post, Richter never had the opportunity to actually paint any of the banners himself. In February 1950, he was taken on as an assistant set painter for the municipal theatre in Zittau. During his few months there, he worked on productions for Goethe's Faust and Schiller's William Tell. His career in the theatre ended abruptly however, when Richter refused to do a wall painting on the theatre's staircases and was promptly dismissed.
Soon after leaving the theatre, Richter applied to study painting at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden [Dresden Art Academy]. It is unclear whether he had been planning to do so, or whether his dismissal prompted him to consider a fresh start. But it was clearly a decision to which he remained committed, even after his first application was rejected. The examiners advised him to find a job with a state-run organisation, as state employees were given preferential treatment in applications at the time. During the following eight months Richter worked as a painter at the Dewag textile plant in Zittau. In the summer of 1951, he returned to his birth city Dresden, ready to begin his formal art studies.
14 Cited in Robert Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.20.
15 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.467.
16 Dietmar Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.7.
17 Interview with Jeanne Anne Nugent, 2006. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.510-11.
18 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, 2002. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.375.