BERLIN — Undaunted by the layer of snow crunching underfoot, hundreds of art enthusiasts stood in a line stretching halfway around the Neue Nationalgalerie on a recent morning here, eager to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective.
“He’s the greatest living German painter,” said Monika Dietz, 60, an eye doctor from Berlin, when asked why she was braving subfreezing temperatures to see the Richter show. “With everything I’ve heard and read and seen about how important he is, I wanted to see for myself.”
Mr. Richter is one of the leading figures in the art world, and the retrospective, “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” is the latest entry in the rising tide of blockbuster exhibitions, of art as event. Yet even by those already high standards the blitz of publicity and fawning praise here has soared past positive reviews toward the heights of canonization.
A series of exhibitions, coinciding with Mr. Richter’s 80th birthday this month, have certified his transformation from a challenging but highly successful artist known for painting abstract as well as figurative works to a one-size-fits-all national treasure in Germany, even if the treasure himself — a shy, serious man known for avoiding the limelight — doesn’t fit the mold.
Two newspapers, Die Welt and Berliner Morgenpost, published special sections dedicated to Mr. Richter’s career. The Süddeutsche Zeitung called him the world’s “most influential contemporary painter.” The tabloid Bild, Germany’s highest-circulation daily, known for its conservative, populist bent, called Mr. Richter “an artist of superlatives: the most expensive, the greatest, the most famous.”
Undoubtedly the “most expensive” superlative contributes to the mainstream attention. Mr. Richter has lately commanded prices at auction that are extraordinarily high for a living artist, selling one abstract painting at Sotheby’s in November for $20.8 million. He has repeatedly called the sums his works fetch “absurd,” but that has only added to the attention.
Mr. Richter’s biography reads as though tailor made to fit Germany’s 20th-century historical narrative. Born in Dresden in 1932, one year before Hitler took power, he left East Germany for the West in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up, and never saw his parents again.
But his superstardom here does not stem just from a resonant back story. The retrospective, which runs through May 13, shows off his versatility, as well as his ample talent and ambition, in haunting portraits and paintings of orderly blocks of color facing enormous abstract canvases slathered with layer upon layer of paint. And his paintings of photographs, once questioned by purists, now seem to have prefigured a Tumblr and Facebook era in which finding, posting and recycling images are an everyday activity.
“Everyone is in an archival roller-coaster process of picture language,” said the photographer Thomas Struth, who studied under Mr. Richter in the 1970s. “That almost seems to have been embedded in Gerhard’s work, as if he had foreseen the process which was going to happen 40 years later.”
In addition to the retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie (or New National Gallery) those interested in Mr. Richter’s source material can travel to a museum in Dresden to view his “Atlas,” a compilation, decades in the making, of more than 8,000 sketches, clippings and photographs used to create his works, a monumental archive as exhibition. Back in Berlin a private collection, the me Collectors Room Berlin, is exhibiting the complete collection of Mr. Richter’s prints and editions of photographs.
There will be a lecture series here and weekly screenings of the 2011 documentary “Gerhard Richter Painting,” an understated film with long scenes of the artist at work on abstract canvases.
“He’s being treated like a German hero; he has a stand-alone position right now,” said Holger Liebs, editor in chief of Monopol, a leading German art magazine. This month Monopol ran an article about a year in Mr. Richter’s life and a series of previously unpublished photographic self-portraits from 1966, including cover images of his face frozen in contortions with strips of tape.
Mr. Liebs pointed to a 2002 Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art as a turning point not only in Mr. Richter’s reception in the United States but also in how he was perceived at home. “When Germans leave the country and get recognition elsewhere, everyone loves them even more here,” Mr. Liebs said.
The Modern acquired Mr. Richter’s controversial cycle of paintings inspired by the suicides of members of the left-wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction. The series of 15 somber, gray atmospheric canvases, known as “October 18, 1977” for the day their bodies were discovered, had evoked strong, often critical reactions in Germany.
When the current retrospective opened last year in its first incarnation, at the Tate Modern in London, the paintings from that cycle were part of the show. In Berlin they are displayed separately in the Alte Nationalgalerie, in a room that “normally houses works from the era of German Romanticism, works infused with patriotism after the victory over Napoleon in 1815,” according to the exhibition text.
There the pictures, the text says, “can clearly be seen in the art-historical context of history painting.” These paintings still move Germans, but no longer prompt the kind of impassioned discussion they once did.
“Most people who become really very good are very self-critical about themselves,” Mr. Struth said. “To receive only this positive reaction, it’s painful. You think, ‘O.K., that’s great, but what did I do wrong?’ ” He added, “Gerhard, rightly so, almost complains that everyone loves his work, which is kind of an odd feeling, but people are fascinated by celebrity, fame and money, which has very little to do with what the work is about.”
Hundreds of journalists gathered for the news conference that opened the retrospective last week. Udo Kittelmann, director of the National Galleries, implored them not to ask Mr. Richter about the prices paid for his canvases. “It has no more novelty value, and Mr. Richter surely has more to say about his pictures than what they cost,” Mr. Kittelmann said.
A reporter asked Mr. Richter how it felt to be “celebrated at the moment like no other artist has ever experienced,” as a “titan, an Olympian.” Mr. Richter smiled slyly and replied, “Being ignored would certainly be a lot worse.”
“Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” through May 13 at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, is part of several related shows in Dresden and Berlin.