by Travis Jeppesen on March 2, 2012
Gerhard Richter was never close to his father. Then again, most aren’t. Still, it’s something Gerhard Richter would come to regret later in life, that hour when the alligators come to feed on what’s left of your substrata. All those pieces left unresolved, and yet no will to resolve them. Just little bits left with which to feed those creatures that never go away, but that we previously had the fire to fend off.
Much of the strain can undoubtedly be attributed to Gerhard Richter’s decision, at a young age, to devote his energies to music. This was a decision Gerhard Richter’s father could never understand. If you’re going to devote yourself to one of the higher art forms, why not television, pornography, magic. Music, Gerhard Richter’s father believed, was the lowest of the arts, and he didn’t see any sense in his son’s abiding passion. Keep it as a hobby, he had once told his son, but to avail: Just as an architect once stood upon a hill above a dilapidated city and saw before him an entire century, so Gerhard Richter had closed his eyes one night at the dinner table as his parents prattled on about the flaws and merits of the lightbulb recently installed above them, listened intently to his body’s inner processes as his food was being digested, and discovered a symphony yearning to be replicated out there in the world he so often willed himself absent from.
Odd choice, because, in all honesty, Gerhard Richter didn’t like music all that much while growing up. As a child, he was much more interested in soil.
He composed his first symphony at the age of fourteen. He couldn’t read music at the time, so he had to come up with his own notational system for translating the sounds he heard in his brain to the page and beyond the page until the actual. The actual is like a disease, though he managed to do it, nonetheless. The marks on the page resembled Egyptian hieroglyphs, dotted out beneath labels attributed to the required instruments: mandolin; steel drum; string bass; trombone; banjo.
I always knew my art would speak to the masses, Gerhard Richter once said. It’s just that I had difficulty locating them.
Every small village in that part of the world has its types, Gerhard Richter was fond of saying later in life. There is the village explainer. The village idiot. The village philosopher. The village gossip. The village drunk. My father was the village bore.
The father could usually be found after working hours at the village pub, serenading those unlucky enough to be seated at his table with his endless digressions late into the night, until all those around him were deep in slumber. He himself hardly seemed to notice the profound ennui that his so-called stories inevitably provoked, or if he did, then he met it with a morose indifference that his son would come to struggle with in his own life.
Gerhard Richter’s parents were illiterate by choice. As he would later explain, You have to understand, they grew up speaking several languages — Hungarian, because they were Hungarian; Romanian, because they lived so close to the border; German, because of the Empire. So when it came time to teach them to read and write, their parents couldn’t decide what language to go with. It’s a decision they never really reached.
Then again, literacy wasn’t a requirement of the sort of life Gerhard Richter was brought up in, where the menial tasks of running a farm were the order of the day.
Gerhard Richter finished last in his class at the music conservatory and settled into small town life by marrying the first woman he ever made love to on a cold spring day in 19__. His father had blessed the ceremony by dying of a severe stroke the day before. The other occupants of the pub suddenly noticed he had stopped talking at a certain point. He was just sitting there at the table, staring straight ahead, his mouth wide open, not breathing, reminisced one of his acquaintances.
Gerhard Richter composed symphony after symphony, keeping them all in his desk drawer up in the attic, where he preferred to work alongside an old barrel organ whose handle he would turn whenever he found himself slapped by a dearth of inspiration.
When his wife announced one day that she was pregnant, Gerhard Richter gleefully handed over the sum required by the town abortionist. The following day, his wife returned with the fetus in a glass jar: a boy. Gerhard Richter gave the child the name of his father (not necessarily Gerhard Richter), and sat the jar above his writing desk in the attic, beaming his gaze upon it as the hidden music seeped out of his pores and on to the page.
Eventually, the money ran out and Gerhard Richter was forced to go to work to support his wife and son. He found employment as music teacher at the town’s primary school, where he was much loved by his students and colleagues alike.
One day, when he was nice and old, it came time for Gerhard Richter to leave behind this world and go on to another. As he lay on his deathbed shivering, he held his wife’s hand and informed her that he wished for his remains to be mummified.
Sometimes a secret doesn’t become known until after its possessor passes on. In his last will, it was revealed that Gerhard Richter had a family fortune stashed away in a Liechtensteinian bank account that he had never told his wife about. The money was to be used to start a charitable institution whose mission would be dedicated to fighting hair loss through music. Gerhard Richter’s son would oversee the daily operations of the organization through the formaldehyde and glass of the jar that held him. He would also get to watch Brad Pitt play his father in the movie they made of his life. It was called Gerhard Richter: Struggles of an Ordinary Man.