Monday 23 March 2009

The Richter Portraits

I've been to have a look at the Gerhard Richter portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. As far as I'm aware, these are the first Richters I've seen, but I shall certainly be taking an interest from now on. As any fule kno (well, any fule who read the art reviews), these portraits are painted from photographs - or rather they are photographic images transformed into paintings (while yet remaining recognisably photographic in origin). Richter, who frankly sounds like rather a dry stick, regards the photograph as being, because of its mechanical origins, 'the most perfecft picture'. The photographs he uses for his portraits are sometimes of family members or people he knows, sometimes of famous people, often of entirely anonymous individuals. 'I don't think the painter need either know or see the sitter,' he says. ' A portrait must not express anything of the sitter's soul, essence or character.' An unusual approach to portraiture, to say the least.
Seen in reproduction, these portraits look like photographs - blurry, streaky, out-of-focus, but definitely photographs. However, the originals are unmistakably paintings. They are transformed in recognisably painterly ways - the blurring, for example, is used in part to remove distracting detail and concentrate attention on what matters, and it is recognisably the work of a dry brush. The parts of the images - even the black and white ones - that are in focus are often notated with a degree of painterly gusto. And as Richter moves into colour, the painterly qualities become more apparent, and the dark, sinister undertones of some of the earlier works fall away. There's an extraordinary, richly coloured oil on wood of his daughter Betty, at ten years old, that hardly has any sign of a photographic origin, and suggests the rapt scrutiny of love rather than the objective camera lens (or maybe that's a sentimental reading).
Later portraits such as the Vermeeresque The Reader or Betty (above), the same daughter 11 years later, are, when seen close to, quite fabulously painterly, remarkable feats of extremely delicate brushwork and coloration - and yet still recognisable as photographic in origin. The sense is of a painter who can't help loving the business of handling paint, breaking out from the austere restrictions he's imposed on himself. At least that was how it felt to me - and why I was glad to have seen these remarkable pictures for myself.


  1. In Kolns Ludwigs museum hangs the famous Richter portrait of his missus walking down the stairs sans knickers, sans anything really, my first port of call, almost daily whilst enjoying the free Koln hospitality, courtesy of junior. Upon his return in the evening his first words are inevitably "been ogling Frau Richters pubes again dad"

    Welcome to the club Nige, his window in the Dom is a pure joy, as are his pictures, until recently on show in the Ludwigs and now residing in Edinburgh's Dean gallery (Mahler, Einstein, Stravinsky etc), over 40 portraits.

    He now lives in Koln from where he originally came, Bonns museum of modern German art has an entire gallery of his work. Well worth a visit.

  2. The portrait of Frau Richter walking down the stairs is in the exhibition, or if not that one then another one. Not really my cuppa except for the two paintings Nige mentions and another one of Richter's daughter in the final room. I found the earlier paintings bleak in the extreme, though I guess one could argue that they express an exhausted, shattered, emotionally autistic Germany in the postwar years. They were not to me objects of delight. Also, I left wondering whether the "austere restrictions" Richter set himself have ended up trapping him. Change over the years, or no change?

    I wonder if you saw anyone stopping by the portrait of Lance-Corporal Johnson Beharry VC (Iraq, 2004) just by the entrance to the expo? That said a lot to me about what matters in life and I didn't find much of it in the Richter materials.

  3. Mark, Richter studied art at the Dusseldorf Academy and in Dresden in the early sixties, his home town of Koln was virtually destroyed by 1945 (he was born in 1932) the atmosphere of those times no doubt worked its way into some of his his art. Many of his oils are far from bleak, his bathers on the beach captures perfectly those carefree sunny summer days. His over-painted photograph of a farm is so reminiscent of a winters walk that Schubert rings in the ears
    Some of his abstract oils are so powerful, the colours are almost overpowering.
    As you will observe, I am a fan.

  4. Dudes, I am currently reading (prior to reviewing) "Hunting Eichmann" by Neal Bascomb. It's a page turner, yet so disturbing. I have Germany (and most of Europe, and Argentina, and Israel) in my mind. It is hard to believe these things happened in relatively recent history.

    Based on the one picture you're showing us here, I'd love to see this Richter exhibit, Nige.

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