Learning from art: Gerhard Richter at the National Portrait Gallery

By Martin Vogel

Ella, Gerhard Richter
Ella, Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter’s portraits are confusing. He paints from photographs – some taken from family albums, others found in newspapers and magazines – and strips away the context that provides meaning. He wants to confound interpretation. Yet time and again the viewer is drawn back to the original context – the story behind the picture. For me, it is this tension between the banal surface and the complex reality beneath that makes his work interesting. An exhibition of 35 of his works at the National Portrait Gallery tells us something about the importance of stories in how we make sense of the world.

Richter’s subjects at first glance are beguilingly mundane: a woman with an umbrella; a young girl with a baby boy. The detail is blurred away and the images seem like familiar, suburban scenes – reassuring representations of a world we think we know.

On closer inspection one realises that the woman with umbrella is Jackie Kennedy and the picture portrays her in mourning for her husband. The girl and baby boy turn out to be Richter’s Aunt Marianne and Richter himself as an infant. While the painting was made in 1965 it is from a family image taken before the war. Aunt Marianne had had a psychiatric disorder and had been murdered by the Nazis.

For many of the pictures then there is a temporal dislocation between when the source photograph was taken and when the painting was made. There’s also a thematic dislocation as detail in the original photograph gives way to an image which seems to make sense but is actually very hard to read. Richter seems to want to banish the cues which engage our empathy and which help us recognise the poignancy in life. “You realise,” he once said, “That you can’t represent reality at all – that what you make represents nothing but itself, and therefore is itself reality.”

And yet the exhibition keeps pointing us back to the original context. A booklet handed to visitors as they enter the gallery provides, apparently with Richter’s blessing, helpful explanations of what the source photographs actually portrayed. There is a recognition – by the curator, at least, if not the artist – that the stories behind the paintings provide a richer level of meaning than do the paintings on their own. The painting of Aunt Marianne subverts conventional accounts of German aggression under the Nazis and reminds us of the suffering endured by some of the German people themselves. A picture of two women on a busy pavement turns out to be Brigitte Bardot and her mother hounded by paparazzi. What seems like a picture of a routine shopping trip turns out to be a study of the loss of the mundane that accrues to the celebrity lifestyle.

What’s going on here? Is it that while the artist is trying to create his own reality – in work that represents nothing but itself – proper reality, the messy and complex social reality from which his source images are drawn, keeps reasserting itself? Or is the artist himself conniving to make us rediscover the stories which shape our lives?

Ultimately, I think Richter is more sensitive to the underlying contextual meaning of his works than his remark quoted above would seem to suggest. This is apparent in the paintings of his immediate family, particularly his daughters. Here, the abstraction disappears and we are presented with carefully controlled portraits in the conventional sense. The emotional engagement between artist and subject – father and daughter – breaks through. The images are at once protective and tender while searingly honest.

The paintings in this exhibition, far from representing nothing but themselves, strike me as being in continual dialogue with their source material. For all that they are gorgeous and engaging canvasses in and of themselves, it is their connection to their roots that, for me at least, makes them resonate.

Stories matter. We can’t brush them aside. If we try to we simply create new ones which fill the vacuum. But one story is not as good as another. Richter’s images are rich in narratives which we uncover beneath the surface obfuscation. Without the narratives, the paintings are less interesting precisely because they do not offer such rich meaning in themselves.

Beyond the gallery, one does not need to look far to see the consequence of paying insufficient attention to our stories. Think of the little Scottish banks which were once bywords for prudence and rectitude. Ignoring their roots, they took risks in their dash to grow into global players and ended up bringing catastrophe not only on themselves but the rest of us too. Or what about the internet search engine which once followed the mantra to do no evil but ended as a friend of Chinese censorship? It’s not that only one story is possible. If we allow for alternatives we can see things from different perspectives and envisage new options for ourselves. But if we brush aside our backstories and ignore our roots we can all too easily lose our bearings. Understanding where we have come from helps us stay true to ourselves even as we try to become something different.

Richter’s portraits bring to light our hunger for stories, our need to tell stories to make sense of what we experience. He plays with the human instinct to create meaning in what we see. In stripping away the original narrative behind an image he forces us to make our own stories around his work. But ultimately we are led back to the roots of the original image and we see that story afresh. In suppressing our stories, he encourages us to respect them.

Gerhard Richter Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery until 31 May 2009.