Over the weekend I dropped by Cologne to see Gerhard Richter’s new windows in the south nave of the Cologne Cathedral. My picture of them is here, although you can find better ones on the web.
Richter, who was born and trained as an artist in Dresden and came to West Germany in the early 1960s, flits from style to style like a dragonfly from reed to reed. Austere abstraction, mass-media quotation, black-and-white paintings based on blurry vacation photographs, giant, aggressively painterly canvases, microscope images, and even paintings which he himself unashamedly calls "beautiful" — subjects such as a candles, a summer day, or clouds over open sea. As he once said — in a phrase used as the title of a documentary about him — "my pictures are cleverer than I am."
A few years ago, he was commissioned by the Diocese of Cologne to fill the windows in the south nave of that city’s great gothic cathedral. The previous windows, installed after WWII, were featureless and almost clear. That blinded the faithful in the northern nave during winter days. At first, the Domkapitel (the cathedral’s governing body) wanted windows that showed 20th century martyrs, but they couldn’t settle on an appropriate design. They asked Richter, and he decided on complete abstraction. His model was a 1974 work called 4096 colors — a painting composed of small squares painted completely at random in one of 72 different colors. The window has about 11,500 squares (G). Although the distribution of squares is random, Richter supposedly favored Mediterannean colors, which does come through in the shimmering wash of light which the windows produce.
The Cardinal of Cologne, Joachim Cardinal Meisner, is not pleased. To him (G), the windows are suspiciously ecumenical; you could find them in any place of worship, even (gasp) a mosque. Visitors have already dubbed them the "confetti windows." They also bring to mind a digital photograph blown up until none of the multicolored pixels forms a recognizable image.
I’m of two minds about the new windows. On the one hand, Meisner (gasp) sort of has a point, doesn’t he? I’m not asking for bleeding-heart madonnas here, but something so aggressively abstract does have a bit of the airport ecumenical chapel about it. (For a different approach to church decoration look here). One the one hand, when the light shines through them strongly, the effect is real purty. Thousands of individual rays of multicolored light make the air visible.