Situating the "Real," Discovering Desire

By Marks, Lesley | PSYART, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Situating the "Real," Discovering Desire

Marks, Lesley, PSYART


Gerhard Richter grew up during the war and Soviet occupation of East Germany. After working briefly in the East, he moved to the West in 1961 to develop his career as an artist. I examine Richter's work through the prism of Lacanian theory. Lacan recognises humanness in the dialectical relations between the eye and the gaze: it is our need to see and be seen (recognised) that differentiates us from the animal world. Similarly, Richter's paintings-from-photographs address the impossibility of piercing the surface of another's gaze; he paints representations that ask questions, yet give no answers. Lacan and Richter both cast doubt on the notion of 'truth' and express the tension between truth and appearance, seeking to better understand the desire and lack that characterise the way human beings relate both to themselves and others. Richter's paintings are a dialectization of the Lacanian 'real', attempting to speak the unspeakable and come to terms with its impact.


What follows is a study of some of Gerhard Richter's paintings-from-photographs, analysed through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. I have juxtaposed the artist and the psychoanalyst for a number of reasons, not least because both had tremendous impact on cultural theory and fine art respectively from the mid-twentieth century. Lacan's psychoanalytic work is - as his biographer Elisabeth Roudinesco explains -"treated as if it were holy writ"[1] in the French psychoanalytic movement, though in English-speaking countries he was seen more as a French philosopher than as the author of a clinical doctrine[2]. But English-speaking writers like Hal Foster and Judith Butler use Lacanian theories to pursue a wide variety of arguments ranging from art criticism and film studies to feminism and gender studies.

Richter's impact on the world of fine art is harder to measure, partly because he is still alive, and still painting and exhibiting new works. However, since the 1960s Richter has become known for his complexity and range of styles. The scope Richter embraces leads him to be described by one of the National Portrait Gallery's critics as "one of the world's leading contemporary artists"[3]. This study is concerned with paintings-from-photographs, but it must be noted that Richter's oeuvre includes thousands of works and the examples shown here constitute only a small measure of his output.

Both Lacan and Richter address the issues of desire and lack. In Lacan these have almost ontological status: "Once the subject himself comes into being, he owes it to a certain nonbeing [lack] upon which he raises up his being [desire]"[4]. The Lacanian subject's desire is unattainable; it eludes him and he lives his life within the context of the lack. In Richter the viewer is presented with a view of her desire which is subsequently negated through a system of painterly techniques, such as blurring and wiping. His work can be described as underscoring the human dilemma of our desire to understand the world and our place within it, yet being denied the comfort of enjoying any certainty about our knowledge.

In addition, both analyst and artist ask us to locate the 'real'. The 'real' has different meanings for Lacan and for Richter. In Lacan the 'real' is an "unrent, undifferentiated fabric"[5]; there are no divisions or gaps in his 'real' register as it belongs to the period before language and the 'symbolic' order, and equates to the time before the baby's body was socialised and coaxed into compliance. The 'real' in that sense does not exist - it is "killed" by the letter of the 'symbolic' order which, as Bruce Fink puts it, "cuts into the smooth facade of the 'real', creating divisions, gaps and distinguishable entities... laying the 'real' to rest"[6]. Lacan borrows from Heidegger when he says that the 'real' "ex-ists" outside of our reality; it only exists insofar as we use language to describe it and give it a sort of substance. …

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