Go See: ‘Portraits’ by Gerhard Richter, at National Portrait Gallery, London, through May 31st

March 20th, 2009

Frau mit Schirm / Woman with Umbrella (1964) by Gerhard Richter

Following shows at London’s Serpentine Gallery and the National Galleries in Scotland, Gerhard Richter’s work is being featured at the National Portrait Gallery in London, in his third exhibition in the United Kingdom in the last year. Gerhard Richter, 76, is considered one of the world’s most prominent living painters, and has been a fixture of global contemporary art since the mid-1960s.

Portraits focuses on Richter’s trademark portraits, which are actually painted from photographic prints, news clippings and other sources. The sources are never reproduced in exact detail, and are transformed under Richter’s brush into something more ethereal and abstract. This quality is achieved by blurred lines, both literal and figurative: the portraits’ subjects range from the intimate and personal to the historical and public–often intertwined.

Tante Marianne, from 1965, appears to be an innocuous portrait of a teenage girl and a baby. However, the viewer soon learns that Marianne, Richter’s aunt, was schizophrenic and perished as part of a Nazi drive to euthanize the mentally ill.  Herr Heyde, also from 1965, is recreated from a news clipping of the trial of the Nazi neurologist who was behind the mass euthanization and other atrocities.  However both portraits manage to convey a sense of detachment from its subjects and their context, despite being their being an exploration of ostensibly loaded personal and national narratives.

In fact, Richter proudly and intentionally attempts to strip all narrative from his paintings. Frau mit Schirm appears to be a reproduction of an anonymous woman caught barely suppressing an unidentified but overwhelming emotional reaction.  Almost unrecognizable, the image is of Jacqueline Kennedy moments after the assassination of her husband. With the narrative removed, the image becomes ghostly and almost inpenetrable;  once the narrative is reintroduced, it creates a tension between what the viewer feels it should elicit and the presentation offered by Richter.

Portraits will be on display until May 31st.

Artist Page: Gerhard Richter 
Exhibition Page: Gerhard Richter Portraits at National Portrait Gallery 
Murdered Aunt, Ghostly Nudes Star in Gerhard Richter Exhibit [Bloomberg]
Photos and fantasy: Gerhard Richter’s portraits [The Independent UK]
Gerhard Richter at National Portrait Gallery, London [The Times of London]
Faces from an abstract life [Financial Times]

Tante Marianne / Aunt Marianne (1965) by Gerhard Richter

Horst mit Hund / Horst with a Dog (1965) by Gerhard Richter

Herr Heyde (1965) by Gerhard Richter

Renate und Marianne (1964) by Gerhard Richter

Familie im Schnee / Family in Snow (1966) by Gerhard Richter

Betty (1977) by Gerhard Richter

Self-portrait (1996) by Gerhard Richter

Moritz (2000) by Gerhard Richter