While the years immediately following the end of World War II were in many ways difficult, Richter also has fond memories of this time, not least because he found he had access to books that had previously been forbidden under Nazi control. Speaking to Robert Storr, Richter explained: "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."1 In a later conversation with Jan Thorn-Prikker, Richter elaborated, "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."2 Dietmar Elger, having described Richter's mother Hildegard's role in encouraging her son's interest in Nietzsche, Goethe, Schiller and others, notes that it was an "endless supply of illustrated books that prompted his own first drawings."3 In an interview with Jeanne Anne Nugent, Richter recalls studying 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."4
It was around this time, at the age of 15 or 16, that Gerhard's passion for art began in earnest, having an early epiphany during an eight-week summer camp organized by the Russian-controlled State, where "for the first time he spent a lot of time drawing."5 One of the first drawings that Richter recalls and acknowledges producing6 as a young man in 1946 was a nude figure copied from a book, which his parents are said to have reacted to with both pride and embarrassment.7 He recalls also having made landscapes and self-portraits, and perhaps more unusually, often working in watercolours. In a 2002 interview with Storr, Richter describes a watercolour drawing he produced whilst living in the village of Waltersdorf of a group of people dancing. "Automatically I was an outsider. I couldn't speak the dialect and so on. I was at a club, watching the others dance, and I was jealous and bitter and annoyed. So in the watercolor, 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."8
In 1947, while still studying stenography, accounting and Russian at college in nearby Zittau, Richter began attending evening classes in painting. Little has been documented about these first painting lessons, although Elger records that before completing the course, Richter realized that he had learnt all that he was likely to from the teachers there.9 A year later, Richter moved into a hostel for apprentices in Zittau, leaving his family home in Waltersdorf.
While clearly passionate about art, on completing his studies in Zittau in 1948, Richter did not assume his career would be as a painter, and for a while considered an eclectic array of professions, including forestry, dentistry and lithography. Looking for openings that would use his artistic skills for trade and commercial purposes if not in the fine art arena, his first position was as a member of a team producing banners for the German Democratic Republic government. Storr recounts that during his five months in this post, Richter never had the opportunity to actually paint any of the banners himself, instead being charged with the task of taking the old banners and cleaning them up ready for his colleagues to paint.10 In February 1950 he was taken on as an assistant set painter for the municipal theatre in Zittau. Richter had recently been involved with an amateur theatre group11, so it was perhaps through this, or even, as Storr proposes, through friends from his evening classes, that he was aware of and disposed to the role at the theatre. During his few months here, Elger notes that he enjoyed working on the sets for productions including Goethe's Faust and Schiller's William Tell among others. His career in the theatre came to an abrupt end, however, when the young Richter refused to do wall painting work on the theatre's staircases, and was promptly dismissed.12
Soon after leaving the theatre, he applied to study painting at the Dresden Art Academy [Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden]. It is unclear whether he had already been planning to do so whilst at the theatre, or whether his dismissal prompted fresh consideration of his future. But it was clearly an idea to which he was committed, as having had his first application rejected, he was advised by the examiners to find a job with a state-run organization in order to increase his chances of being accepted, which he duly did. As Elger explains, State employees tended to receive preferential treatment at that time, and the recommendation must have worked, as following eight months working as a painter at the Dewag textile plant in Zittau, he reapplied and was accepted onto the course.13 He returned to his birth city of Dresden in the summer of 1951, ready to begin his formal studies to be a painter.
1 Cited in Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.20.
2 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.467.
3 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.7.
4 Interview with Jeanne Anne Nugent, 2006, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.510-11.
5 Jürgen Harten [Ed.], Gerhard Richter Bilder Paintings 1962-1985, p.9.
6 Richter does not consider the vast majority of his early works, including most of the work he went on to produce whilst a student in Dresden, to constitute part of his œuvre. When asked why during a conversation with Birgit Grimm in 2000 Richter replied, "Because I felt like I was a student until then – someone who didn't yet know what he wanted, artistically speaking." Gerhard Richter: Text, p.355
7 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.20.
8 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.375.
9 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.7.
10 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.20. It is unclear whether this is the same job as described on p.10 of Elger's Life in Painting, which also refers to an early role preparing signs for colleagues to paint; Elger's account suggests Richter was working for a shop sign business rather than on State advertising, though Storr's account suggests he might have moved on to a second job as a sign painter.
11 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.467.
12 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.10; Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.20.
13 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.10; in Storr's account of Richter's second application to the Dresden Art School, he describes how the young artist presented a portfolio of drawings and watercolours, "including a semi-abstraction that puzzled his examiners who gave it the title 'Volcano' to allay their discomfort". Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.20.