Exhibition Review - Gerhard Richter Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – February 28 to May 31, 2009
The National Portrait Gallery has brought together a selection of Gerhard Richter’s work spanning his entire career for the first UK exhibition of his portraits.
Regarded as one of the world's leading contemporary artists, the exhibition represents a major advance in the understanding and appreciation of Richter's achievements by examining his portraits in detail.
Before you reach the exhibition, Richter's work 48 Tafeln (48 portraits), is on display in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall. Featuring nineteenth and twentieth century cultural figures it offers a taste of the artist's work.
The portraits are arranged chronologically and divided into five themes, titled using the artist’s own words – 'The Most Perfect Picture,' 'Devotional Pictures,' 'Continual Uncertainty,' 'Private Images' and 'Personal Portraits.'
The exhibition begins with 'The Most Perfect Picture' which includes three portraits focusing on the assassination of John F Kennedy.
Amongst them, the subject matter of 'Frau mit Schirm' (woman with umbrella) is not clear from the picture and neither is the situation. The viewer is presented with an unknown woman holding an umbrella who appears to be weeping.
Richter later revealed how the portrait is based on news footage of Jacqueline Kennedy responding to the assassination of her husband. He explained: “I blur things to make all the parts of a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.”
Richter’s view is that the machine-made photograph is the ‘most perfect picture’ and many of his portraits present a deliberately blurred or distressed image that masks the reality and context behind the image.
This blurring of reality can be seen in 'Terese Andeszka,' a beach scene that at first glance appears to be a vision of domestic happiness. However the picture used as the inspiration for the portrait is taken from a newspaper story about a young girl who narrowly escaped death on a family holiday.
In 'Devotional Pictures' Richter uses photographs of family and friends, which he describes as ‘pictures taken in remembrance of the people depicted.’
The artist himself appears as an infant being held by his young aunt in 1933 in the portrait 'Tante Marianne'.
Again, the portrait presents what appears to be a happy domestic scene that somehow detaches it from the sad truth behind the picture. The Nazis killed his aunt as part of their euthanasia programme because she suffered from schizophrenia.
'Continual Uncertainty' shows people in a range of ordinary situations, leaving the viewer to invest their own meaning in the portrait - there is a sense of slippage between appearance and how things really are.
You can’t tell what the sources are. For example Richter used advertisements and newspaper images and this experience is analogous to everyday experience where appearances can conceal an unknown reality.
One example is 'Helga Matura mit Verlobtem' - a picture of a posed couple that could be a picture of a mother and son. However the original image was a newspaper cutting of Helga Matura (a prostitute who was later murdered) and her fiancé.
The affinities between Richter and pop artist Andy Warhol become clear in 'Private Images,' particularly in 'Portrait Schmela' and 'Brigid Polk.' Richter used a series of photo booth images of art dealer Alfred Schmela who gave Richter his first one-man show to create the portrait – a similar technique used by Warhol in the early 60s.
A further link is the portrait of artist Brigid Polk, who was one of Warhol’s circle and famous for her ‘tit paintings’ that she created by dipping her breasts in paint.
Colour starts to come into his work when he is using his own images. A kaleidoscopic image of Gilbert and George is of extraordinary photographic quality and the merged faces create the effect of an over-exposed photo.
Richter's altering and re-working helps to de-personalise his portraits and remove them from their context - the paintings return to being viewed as objects.
Tellingly, the last piece in the exhibition is a mirror – you return to your own image and have to ask yourself what do you see – is it the real person or is it just a re-worked image? See for some essay's ...