as far as I know, Gerhard Richter is still alive and working

In Edge of the Orison, Iain Sinclair tells us that “Gerhard Richter kept photographs, potential art works for years . . . under the heading of ‘unfinished business’.”  p.166

 I feel apologetic about mentioning (death) – but I know now that it is my subject.  [Significantly, though, when I was drafting this piece I forgot to write the very word that I am always writing, always thinking.  There was an insertion, which typing doesn’t quite show.]

The students saw through me – they smelt me out, all right.  She’s always talking about death, Alice complained.  (Am I?  I hadn’t noticed.  No more than anyone, surely.  No more than normal.)  But that defence won’t wash.  They saw that this was all there is for me: all that’s real.  How did they sense that this is the one topic that holds firm, that holds in three dimensions, while all the others fade and dissolve away?  The only topic with lively intensity.  They felt it perhaps through that dynamic – a magnetism that draws, and draws on, over and over, powerfully returning always.  

How could Richter have the gall to keep things?  To mature ideas?  What confidence, what effrontery in the face of death and its sudden, arbitrary strike.

How dare we believe that we will live to be old?  How behave as if we are not about to leave?  How can we ever not be dying?

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8 Responses to “as far as I know, Gerhard Richter is still alive and working”

  1. valkyrie1 Says:

    I can’t say it had leapt out at me that you were always talking about death. Here, you have sent me looking into Iain Sinclair and psychogeography. Life is definitely too short.

    • albertine Says:

      I guess it was in the context of teaching a module on biography – may have skewed the subject matter a little. But actually I do see much of the world in the context of life’s brevity – almost without thinking about it – and the student’s complaint really pulled me up short and made me think.
      The most entertaining psychogeographer I know is Will Self, who wrote a regular column in the Independent – excellent observation, but also very contained because for a newspaper, and so much more tightly organised than (say) Sinclair. Findable online within the Independent‘s archives.

  2. Jill Barker Says:

    Come to think of it, you do psychogeography yourself, in your ‘weekend walks’.

  3. valkyrie1 Says:

    I’m answering your second comment in a blog post. 🙂

    You sent me in search of Gerhard Richter as well, and I learned of the Atlas collection, which is presumably what Sinclair meant by “keeping photographs”. I deeply admire those with the discipline and foresight to collect history.

    Biography is terribly popular, but I’m suspicious of people who read nothing else. (I’ve met a few.) The biographies I’ve attempted to read have been full of “She must have felt very [whatever] when…” Must she??

    So how is it, teaching a module on biography, and what are your recommendations?

    • albertine Says:

      Richter was new to me as well – and what a wonderful find!
      Teaching biography was an interesting experience. Actually, it was often called ‘Life Writing’ by my boss, and included autobiography. I had an over-large class of mutually inimical creative writers and journalists, who sat in separate areas of the room (except the room was crowded, so they were more like contiguous enclaves, spatting across no gap at all). They had very different agendas. We functioned by reading various pieces – my favourite, ‘Father and Son’ by Edmund Gosse focusses on – oh, what can I say? – clashes of will, a stern father, family revolt, the development of a writerly sensibility – and much more. We also looked at some parts of Alan Bennett’s wonderfully-observed ‘Untold Stories’. But of course both of these are also autobiographical. (Maybe the two are inextricable, anyway.) For biography we read Ted Hughes’ ‘Birthday Letters’ (about Sylvia Plath) and watched the movie ‘Sylvia’ – and compared the treatment of some episodes. I got them to interview one another, and to interview family members, and write up their stories. (One woman wrote a brilliant short play!) And we read obits. in the papers – but I don’t think I asked them to write one. By the end of the year I had almost memorised their names, and they had almost decided to like me.

    • albertine Says:

      Forgot to answer your ‘she must have . . . ‘ – always a sign of a terrible writer and a woolly and intrusive thinker. So presumptuous! It amazes me that that stuff can be popular, but it is.

  4. Avril Says:

    Your musings on death link neatly with the post before about the pear tree and how someone had the foresight all those years ago to plant the tree in your garden. We will all die, of that there is no doubt, but we leave more than just a collection of jumble and cupboards to be cleared out. My mother’s death at 100 in June caused much musing here too. But as her photos appear at random on my screen saver I realise that all those times with her are stored deep somewhere. My birch tree plantings will give some pleasure to someone else a long time from now. My times with my children and grandchildren are all stored too somewhere in a collective family memory to be enjoyed at random…and my collection of writings will make someone groan or smile when I am not here to watch their reactions!
    Richter’s photographic paintings certainly give great pleasure with their skill and their considerations of incident and character.
    As an A level student my teacher, Stan Carter, now dead, once told us of climbing a hill at the weekend and looking out over the countryside. This was clearly a powerful experience as he described it. And then he said, “But what was the point of doing that…in a week the memory will have faded, by the end of the year I will remember that I did it but not its importance and years from now it will have gone forever from my memory.” We all sat in stunned silence.
    We were studying King Lear at the time and I now see what he was doing but at the time it was so shocking…

    • albertine Says:

      Thank you Averil. A lovely and encouraging reply. There’s an old country saying: ‘Plant pears for your heirs’, which I like a lot.

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