Gerhart  Richter Portraits


Written by Jared Lynn
02 Monday 02nd March 2009

Gerhard Richter's current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a fascinating peek into the life and works of a man regarded by some as the world's greatest living artist. Jarred Lynn went along.

The exhibition draws from private and public collections to showcase Richter's famous ‘Photo Pictures'. Emblazoned with his trademark blur, his voyeuristic painted photographs - what Richter calls the ‘perfect picture' - create an intimate and touching experience which leaves the viewer guessing as to the realities and truths behind the images.

Richter's subjects vary from family members and celebrities to contemporaries and art dealers. The photos which the portraits are based on are taken from newspapers, magazines and personal albums. They give us a glimpse into Richter's life and relationships, making the exhibition somewhat biographical.

While there is little unseen material on show, it remains a comprehensive look at Richter's work from the 1960's to the present day. His so-called ‘devotional pictures' - snapshots from Richter's family albums - evoke the greatest sense of emotion. A painting of a young Richter and his aunt, who was murdered by the Nazi's in 1945, is particularly moving. While an unflattering portrayal of Richter's father, painted with a woman's hat and clown-like hair, leaves the viewer questioning the relationship between father and son. Richter's style, which mostly avoids strict photo-realism, allows you the freedom to wonder how much of the original photograph is replicated in the portrait.

Political figures are a popular theme. One room in the exhibition focuses on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Portraits of Lee Harvey Oswald, President Johnson consoling Jacqueline Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy are intriguing subject choices. The portrait of Jacqueline is most interesting as Richter originally didn't want her to be recognisable. He sought to separate the portrait from its original photograph, allowing the viewer to develop a personal interpretation. When the subject is revealed, it's interesting how opinions on the portrait can change, especially when you view the three paintings as a series based on JFK's assassination.

Richter's paintings of famous figures are equally challenging. His portrait of the artists Gilbert and George replicates the multiple exposures of the original photograph. Again it leaves you questioning the reality of the snapshot, while marvelling at Richter's subtle and astounding brushwork.

Breathtaking technical skills entice you into his paintings, while the mystery behind the images fixes your gaze but keeps the mind running. Richter's blur effect, achieved by dragging a dry brush across the still wet paint, is what separates his paintings from the reality of the photographs. The style suggests imperfection in the painting and the original image. But perhaps more interestingly it asks questions regarding the truth of the original. A photograph may be a snapshot of the real world but is it honest in its representation of it? These questions and ideas are what cement Richter's legacy as one of our most important and original artists.

Highlights of the exhibition are two small, understated self-portraits which offer a further, curious glimpse of the usually reclusive artist. The first portrait shows Richter facing the camera, while the second paints Richter looking downwards, almost hiding from the lens. This rare peep into Richter's life asks more questions than it answers. Which of the portraits reflect the man himself? Do either of them? Or both?

By his own reasoning, Richter's portraits are actually failures. Richter famously said that, "a portrait must not express anything of the sitter's soul, essence or character," yet the works presented at the National Portrait Gallery do just this. The subtle, delicate gestures of his subjects, and the knowledge that the photograph has captured a personal moment of time, bring a most intimate and touching element to his artwork.

The exhibition ends on a somewhat disappointing note. A gimmicky and predictable mirror allows visitors a second or two of deep contemplation on their own portraiture - until they realise the artwork really is just a basic mirror. The rest of the exhibition creates enough depth and asks sufficient questions that the final mirror piece is not required. The opportunity to witness the work of one of the world's greatest artists makes the Richter exhibition a must see. A touching and emotional insight into the artist's life and work, it's certainly one of the art events of the year.

Gerhard Richter Portraits runs from 26 Feb to 31 May at the National Portrait Gallery. For more information on this artist and exhibition click here.


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