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Whether drawn from the media or based on family photographs, Richter's source images were intentionally 'banal'. The resulting paintings assert nothing definite, draw attention to no particular facet or feature, and avoid making a specific point. This avoidance tactic deflects the universal human instinct to seek meaning in the appearance of people and things. By frustrating that process, Richter's portraits draw attention to the inscrutable nature of appearance. By depicting people in a range of ordinary situations, the paintings are open to a range of interpretations. In this way, the portraits convey a universal human predicament: the desire to understand the world and a corresponding inability to know anything with any certainty.

From the mid-1960s, Richter's portraits increasingly sustain this tension between inviting yet resisting interpretation. Some appear innocuous while others, notably Herr Heyde, which depicts a Nazi war criminal, strike a darker note. Of the way such images appear ambiguous or tantalizingly enigmatic, Richter commented: 'You realise that you can’t represent reality at all – that what you make represents nothing but itself, and therefore is itself reality'.
contd...

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Mutter und Tochter (B) by Gerhard Richter, 1965
Ludwig Galerie Schloss Oberhausen
© Gerhard Richter, 2009

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